26 Feb The Chapel
“The Chapel”Written by Ryan Harville Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 22 minutes
It was August in Alabama, half past noon, and suffocatingly hot.
It was beautiful outside, with pines lining the road and the smell of their sap in the air. But nature couldn’t mask the stark scenes of small-town decay. Alms Hill was barely big enough to be considered a town and was kept on life-support by the jobs the chemical plants provided in the next county over. Its shops and businesses were spread out at random intervals along the one highway that ran near it. Two title loan operations stood side by side, bookended by a decrepit gas station that served greasy food on one end and a daycare center for kids on the other. The daycare stood out the most, its walls covered by poorly painted versions of famous cartoon characters so awful that it seemed intentional. A lone dollar-store stood apart from the others as if shunned.
Heat rose in shimmering waves from the asphalt as Kyle pulled into the church’s parking lot. The church was the nicest building for miles, a gleaming white oasis in the desert of rural depression. Amazingly, even the grass was still lush and green. Normally the grass yellowed and died this late in the summer, crunching underfoot as you walked. Kyle hoped someone was getting paid handsomely for the upkeep, but he knew better. He’d bet his next paycheck that the lawncare was all done by volunteers from the church. The church was the town this far south. All aspects of life revolved around the church like planets around the sun.
All he had to do was glance around the parking lot to see it. It looked like the whole town had come out for his cousin’s funeral, and it probably had. Kyle stepped out from the air-conditioned car and into the thick air, the humidity weighing on him like a wet blanket.
He hadn’t been back home in years. Although he still lived in the state, he didn’t travel this far south often, not since he’d graduated from college.
Within seconds someone was calling his name. “Kyle?”
His Uncle Jim strode out to meet him, his broad shoulders casting a squat shadow in the noon sun.
“Hey,” Kyle said and hugged the big man. “How are you holding up?”
A confused look passed over his face. “I’m, uh, I’m good, you know, considering.”
Kyle could’ve slapped himself for asking such a stupid question. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–”
“Nah, it’s okay, I know what you meant. Well, I’m as good as can be expected,” he looked toward the sky. “The Lord gave us a beautiful day. Usually August is rainy as shit, thunderstorms every afternoon. But He wanted to make sure everyone came out for Hunter.”
Kyle nodded and attempted a smile that felt wrong on his face. “Everyone loved him. He was a great kid.”
“Sixteen years old,” Jim said, his voice cracking. “Too young. Too goddamn young. But at least he’s with the Lord. I made sure of that. Come on, Kyle. Let’s get inside where it’s cooler. I just had to get out of there for a minute. Your Aunt Loretta is in there squawking with the other hens. Bores the shit outta me if I’m bein’ honest.”
“Sure,” Kyle said, and followed his uncle into the church, a feeling of unease close at his heels.
* * * * * *
Kyle sat uncomfortably on a hard-backed pew, listening to Reverend Weaver spit as he dripped sweat and yelled from the pulpit. He was glad it was a closed casket service. The thought of the preacher’s spit flying over Hunter put him even more on edge.
“Of course, of course, we’re here for Hunter,” the reverend assured them. “We’re here to celebrate his young life and the happiness he gave to us all. We are not here to mourn, oh no. No, no, no. Because there is nothing to be sad about. When Hunter closed his eyes here, he opened them in Heaven. Amen?”
“Amen,” the congregation repeated, heads nodding, and hands raised.
“Now, understand me: I said, when the boy closed his eyes on Earth, he opened them in Heaven.”
Kyle fidgeted, annoyed by everyone’s body heat and the overwhelmingly sweet stench of flowers. He had given up any belief in a God years ago, and while he outwardly tried to respect others’ beliefs, his patience was wearing thin. He could barely tolerate this kind of nonsense on the best of days, but today it was damn near unbearable.
“And what about you?” Weaver said, mopping his brow with a paper napkin. “Where will you open your eyes the morning after your final night on Earth? Will you open them in Heaven? If you ain’t sure, then you need to come on down here right this second, kneel before God and everybody, and accept Jesus into your heart. Don’t wait! It’s the most important decision in y’all’s life, folks! Now, Brother Frank is gonna lead us in a song, and I know it ain’t Sunday, but we’re gonna pass around the offerin’ plate all the same. I’m sure Hunter would’ve wanted all of you to give–”
And just like that, the service had turned from annoying to grotesque. Kyle stood and politely squeezed past people on his way out into the aisle. Someone began to strum on a guitar behind him. He walked through the vestibule and pushed through the double doors.
The day had only gotten hotter in the time he’d been inside. He stood in the shade of the awning, wondering if the graveside service was going to make him sweat through his clothes, when he noticed a teenage boy sitting on the lowered tailgate of a nearby truck. His hair was cut close enough for his scalp to show through, and a tie hung loosely from his neck. The boy nodded to him, then hopped down and walked around the far side of the church.
Kyle followed, although he couldn’t say exactly why. Maybe it was because the kid was the only person not to immediately offer up a saccharine smile when he approached. He turned the corner and there stood the boy, his back on the wall, one foot propping him up. The boy produced a cigarette from his pocket and placed it between his lips.
“Ain’t seen you around,” he said from the side of his mouth, his lips busy holding the cigarette in place. “You family?”
“Yeah,” Kyle said and offered his hand. “I’m Kyle, Hunter’s cousin.”
The boy shook Kyle’s hand. “Chris.”
“Your parents know you’re back here smoking?” Kyle said jokingly.
Chris narrowed his eyes. “I’m seventeen now. They ain’t gonna say shit.”
“Easy, I was just messing with you. So, you couldn’t take it in there either, huh?” Kyle jerked his thumb back, pointing to the church.
Chris raised his lighter up to his face and lit his cigarette, cupping his hand against a nonexistent breeze. “Yeah. I don’t uh, I don’t do the whole church-thing much anymore.”
Kyle laughed. “Your parents would probably be madder about that than the smokes.”
“No doubt,” Chris said. “Just a bunch of sheep in there puttin’ on a show. Like they give a shit.”
“About what? Church?”
“No,” Chris said, and let the white-gray smoke run from his mouth. “About Hunter.”
He shook his head. “Wait, what are you talking about?”
“Nothin’,” Chris said, fear showing on his face. “I gotta get goin’. Nice meetin’ you and all.”
Kyle placed his hand on the kid’s arm. “Wait, please. Why do you think none of them cared about Hunter?”
“Because they let it happen!” Chris said and yanked his arm back. “Everyone! They just sat back and did fuck-all about it!”
“What were they supposed to do?” Kyle said. “It was an ATV accident, Hunter wasn’t wearing a helmet, so how–”
Chris’s laugh came out like a sharp bark. “Yeah, okay. Yeah. Listen: there’s what they say, and there’s what happened, and those two things ain’t the same.”
Kyle felt like the temperature had just dropped by half in a matter of seconds. “So, what happened?”
“I ain’t sayin’ shit else,” Chris said, tossing the cigarette to the grass and crushing it beneath his heel. “And if you’re smart you won’t go asking.”
Kyle was struck dumb.
Chris was about to turn the corner, then stopped, his back to Kyle. “You said that you’re Hunter’s family. You know Hoster’s old chapel? Off the old market road?
“My great-grandfather’s old chapel? Yeah, I know it. I haven’t been there in years. Is it even still standing?”
The boy looked over his shoulder at Chris. “It’s still there. You want to know what happened? Go to the chapel, while everyone is graveside.”
“Why?” Kyle asked. “Why are you telling me this?”
“‘Cause it ain’t right. And nobody around here’s going to do anything about it.”
* * * * * *
Kyle waited for everyone to line up their cars and made sure his was last in line.
The A/C blew deliciously cool air directly into his face, making the drive to the chapel more pleasant than it should’ve been. He asked himself the same question over and over.
“What the fuck am I doing out here?”
He wasn’t a detective, he didn’t have any training for this, whatever this was. But if something had happened to Hunter, something beyond the narrative he’d heard, then didn’t his aunt and uncle have a right to know? He watched the side of the road, ready to quickly dip out of the line of cars.
The entrance to the dirt road that led to the chapel was overgrown with weeds and tall grass. He gently drove in anyway, barely feeling a bump as the grass gave way beneath the car’s tires. Low-hanging tree limbs scrabbled over the roof as if trying to gain purchase, to stop him from going any further. He pressed firmly on the gas until he was clear and back out into the sunshine.
Ahead was an equally overgrown field, and in it stood the chapel his great-grandfather had built. It was a small building, white paint peeling away in great patches. In its prime, it probably held no more than fifty people, a large crowd back then. The old man’s house was just another fifty or so yards away, a little worse for wear but still standing, nonetheless. Kyle had pleasant memories of the old place, sitting on the front porch swing with his granddaddy, watching the old man whittle. His face was perpetually scrunched, his eyes half-closed against the smoke streaming from the pipe clenched between his teeth.
Kyle parked and got out, the smell of dry earth filling his nostrils. He walked across the field feeling the swish of long grass against his pants. As he got closer the chapel looked worse. It wasn’t just the paint. The windows had been shattered at some point, probably by local kids acting like local kids. The entire structure seemed to lean to the left. Not much, but just enough to make him uncomfortable the more he looked at it. It had a sense of wrongness to it. The paint, the windows, and that strange, nearly imperceptible leaning.
The doors were open, the one on the left completely off of its hinges and lying in a drift of dried grass stalks and leaves. Kyle stepped over the door and into the gloom of the chapel.
Sunlight shone in dusty shafts through the windows, illuminating the splintered pews but leaving the shadows in each corner untouched. He walked down the aisle, carefully avoiding the debris. Amazingly, the pulpit still stood, but the podium was in pieces, a book lying among them. Kyle climbed the two steps up and lifted the book that had been left behind.
The book was leather-bound, with a thick strap that led to some kind of lock. Kyle ran his thumb over the lock and then drew it back with a cry
“Son of a bitch!”
Some sharp edge had sliced the tip of his thumb. There was a soft click as the blood-smeared lock opened, and the leather strap fell away.
The book opened, showing inside the front cover.
Kyle had assumed it would be a bible but was wrong. He recognized his great-grandfather’s writing easily enough; he’d seen it on birthday and Christmas cards his whole life.
Though the handwriting was simple, the words were not. He found himself rereading sentences, the fingertips of his thoughts barely holding on to the words. But something was happening.
The chapel shuddered as if hit by winds Kyle couldn’t feel. He stepped back quickly, a surprised cry escaping his lips as the pieces of the podium wavered in his vision. They flew together like magnets colliding, becoming whole once more. The changes occurred all around him. Pews knit themselves back together, becoming like new. The fallen door snapped back into place with a clap.
It was like he’d stepped back in time. The chapel looked as if it had just been built, hell, he could smell the sawed wood and fresh paint. But the lean was still there, he could see it clearly, the walls just a little bit off-kilter.
Kyle’s hands were shaking as he placed the book back upon the podium. He stared at the cover, uncomprehending.
The doors were shoved open and a gust of cold air burst in, blowing his hair away from his sweaty brow. Dried leaves circled through the air. The open door was a rectangle of darkness. Not black, no, but dark. Like the sun was already setting outside, the light grew weaker as it was pushed away.
Hunter stumbled through the doorway, steadying himself with one hand on the frame. He was clothed only in a dirty pair of boxer briefs, his pale body splattered with cracked, dried mud and dead leaves. Dried blood caked his hair and one side of his neck. He stared wild-eyed around the chapel until his gaze fell on Kyle.
Kyle took a few hesitant steps then ran to Hunter, catching him before he could collapse. They sank to the floor together, and Kyle shut the door against the silver bromide world outside.
“Yeah, it’s me. How? How did you get here?”
“I… I think I’m dead, Kyle. Jesus Christ, I’m fucking dead.”
Hunter’s words dissolved into sobs.
Kyle waited until Hunter had calmed somewhat.
“I don’t know what’s going on, Hunter. I drove down for…for your–”
“Funeral,” Hunter said. “Right? That’s about the only reason you’d come back to this shithole.”
“True. Especially this time of year. I forgot how hot it gets.”
“It’s not hot out there,” Hunter said, nodding toward the door. “It’s not even cold, it’s just, just nothing.”
“What’s out there?”
“I don’t know. I was wandering around; I don’t know how long. It’s always evening. There’s no sun and no moon. I just wander through the woods a-and the woods never end.”
“Do you remember the accident?”
“Accident?” Hunter said with a laugh. “There wasn’t no fucking accident. They killed me. Oh sure, they didn’t mean to kill me, not there and then. But they were going to kill me soon enough.”
Kyle’s mind reeled. “Who killed you?”
“Look and see,” Hunter said, and grasped Kyle’s hand.
The world spun like he was drunk and staring up at a ceiling fan. He could smell pine and he was out of breath and they were coming fast–
Kyle saw the hurried, blurred world through Hunter’s eyes.
* * * * * *
Hunter was running, and the knocking of his heart was in time with his panicked thoughts.
Oh shit oh shit oh shit God help me oh shit
His lungs felt as if they were going to collapse in on themselves, twin vacuums trying desperately to suck in the thick, humid air. Brambles whipped at his ankles, drawing bright lines of red across his pale skin. He barely noticed. It was a muted sensation, like the memory of an old pain. The only sounds were the alternating thumps of his footsteps and the stridulating crickets, their song waxing and waning through the woods. He was glad to hear their chirping, it meant night was coming soon. And if he could make it to nightfall, he could rest, hidden by the dark.
He was tired, more tired than he’d ever felt in his life. But more than that he was scared, and that trumped everything else. There was no way he was going back. Back was Hell, back was torture and hunger.
“Oh, God,” he said, drawing in a sharp breath. His pace slowed as he sobbed. He stumbled and fell, his knees sinking into the soft earth. It felt good to stop. More than good, it felt like there was nothing better in the world. He laid down on his side and curled up, arms across his heaving chest.
His breathing settled into an even rhythm, along with his thoughts. He knew if he kept to this side of the creek, he’d eventually run into the aptly named Old Creek Road, which would lead him to the highway. He could hitch a ride, if anyone would stop for a filthy teenage boy sprinting out of the woods in his boxer briefs. But they’d have to help, right? Something was obviously wrong; he was dirty and bleeding. Someone would come along. Someone would help.
He wanted to believe but couldn’t quite keep the hope within his mind’s grasp.
From somewhere, from everywhere, his name echoed across the woods.
Hunter froze, his aching muscles clenching and his lungs burning.
“Hunter!” the cry came again, this time a different voice. “Come on back, boy! We ain’t gonna hurt you!”
“It’s going to be alright!” the first voice said. “We’re done, okay? Come on back and we’ll call your parents, have ‘em come pick you up–”
Rage bubbled up from his guts and burst from his mouth. “Liars!” he screamed then clapped his hand over his mouth to stop the word, but it had already flown.
The response was immediate. “There! He’s up there! Go right and cut him off from the road!”
Hunter ran. Soon the tree trunks were rushing by in a blur of gray and brown. He kept his feet following a straight line that followed along the sloped ridgeline that led to the creek. Ahead, the treeline was thinning, and Hunter could see the stripes of black asphalt between the trunks.
Twin pinpricks stung his back and his muscles seized as he fell backwards and over the side of the ridge, unable to raise his hands to catch himself. Hunter tumbled down, slamming to the ground, pain flaring in the side of his head, then finally coming to rest at the water’s edge.
He couldn’t move. He stared up at the forest canopy, watching the prismatic sunlight become softer.
Leaves rustled as someone came down the slope near him.
“Shit!” the newcomer yelled.
A voice from farther along the ridge. “What? You taze him?”
“Yeah, I got him! But he’s bleedin’ really bad. Hit his head on something. We’re gonna have to call–”
“We ain’t callin’ a goddamn thing. Go back and get his clothes while I figure this mess out.”
Other things were said, but Hunter could barely hear them. Soon the light was gone, and so was he.
* * * * * *
Kyle cried out and pushed himself away from Hunter’s grasp.
“Shit! Oh, shit! I’m sorry, Hunter. It’s like I was there!”
Hunter nodded. “Wasn’t sure if that was gonna work or not, but I’m glad it did.”
“Who were those guys chasing you?”
“Frank Weaver and Todd Colby. Friends of my dad’s. Deacons in the church.”
“What the hell? They were holding you captive somewhere. Why?”
“This place ain’t what you think it is,” Hunter said, weakly gesturing at the chapel. “It’s more than just a chapel, like the church isn’t just a church, and the cemetery down the road ain’t just a cemetery. They’re all connected. You ever watch cop shows or movies? How there’s always a map with pins in it, and they’re all tied together with thread?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen something like that.”
“Well, those three spots would be where the pins are. Places of power.”
“Okay, but what does that mean?”
“It means it’s the perfect place for a summoning.”
Kyle laughed. “Summoning? Like, what, a demon? You’re telling me that there’s some kind of devil-worshipping cult in town right under everyone’s noses?”
“No, not under their noses. Most of the congregation knows. And they ain’t looking to summon a demon.”
“An angel,” Hunter said. “And they’re gonna do it too, if you don’t find get the hell out of town as fast as you can.”
“How is skipping town going to stop them?”
“They’ll use you somehow for the ritual. You’re marked,” Hunter said flatly. “Same as I am. Was.”
“I’m not following,” Kyle said, genuinely confused.
“We turned our back on God, and we’re family. I don’t why the family part is important, but it is.”
“I didn’t turn my back. I just don’t believe there is such a thing.”
“No difference, really. ‘Cause there is. He’s real, and always angry.”
Kyle felt a chill crawl up his back. “So, they need apostates.”
“I don’t know that word,” Hunter said.
“People who’ve renounced their faith.”
“Oh. Yeah, that’s it then.”
Kyle let out a shaky sigh. “If I hurry, I can get out while the graveside service is still going on. People always mill around afterwards.”
“Time’s different in here,” Hunter said. “It may be later than you think.”
Kyle nodded then got to his feet. “Okay, I’ll get moving then.”
Hunter stood, his eyes shiny with tears. “Just get out of here, okay? Don’t look back, just run.”
“I will try my damnedest. I swear.”
Hunter pulled him into a hug. They stood like that for a moment until Hunter backed away and opened the door.
“Thanks, Kyle,” he said. “I wish we’d have been closer, you and me. You know?”
“Yeah,” Kyle said, feeling himself choke up. “Me too.”
Hunter nodded, a sad smile on his lips. He opened the door.
Kyle looked away as Hunter crossed the threshold into the silvery, negative space outside.
The air rushed from the room, and Kyle–
–was standing back at the pulpit, the book in his hand. The podium was shattered once again and the chapel was back to its original form, a decrepit mess.
“Holy shit,” he whispered.
From outside, the normal outside, a voice called his name.
“Kyle! Kyle, you in there?”
Two men stepped in front of the church doors, and although Kyle had not seen either of them in many years, he still recognized Frank Weaver and Todd Colby.
Frank, skinny as a rail and sporting a thick, gray beard. And Todd, his sweaty scalp shining through his combover in the late afternoon light, a rifle in his hands.
“Hey there, Kyle,” Frank said. “It’s been a minute. When you didn’t show up to the graveside service, your uncle got mighty worried and sent us to check after you.”
“Uh-huh, that’s right,” Todd chimed in.
“Really?” Kyle called back. “And how did he know I’d be here?”
“Well, where else would you be? Figured you’d want to visit the family homestead. Why don’t you come on back and say your goodbyes?”
“Nah, I’m good,” Kyle said, trying to sound calm. “I think I’m going to get on the road before dark. Got a long drive ahead of me.”
Frank and Todd glanced at one another.
“We understand,” Todd said. “But your aunt and uncle would be mighty disappointed if you just up and left without sayin’ goodbye.”
Kyle’s patience was growing thinner by the second. They were Hunter’s killers, standing fifty feet from him but he surprised himself by feeling more angry than scared.
“I’ll send them a postcard,” he said. “Now if you gentlemen would excuse me, I’m going to finish my little tour here and get on the road. Thanks for stopping by.”
Frank’s mouth twisted into a knot of frustration. “Why don’t you just come out and we can talk. This hollerin’ back and forth is gettin’ old.”
“I’m not moving ‘til Mr. Colby explains why he’s brought a rifle along with him.”
“Bears,” Todd said. “You know we got black bears around here.”
“Yeah, and I know there’s not been one bear attack in the whole state since we started keepin’ records of it. Try again.”
Frank sighed. “Just get out here, alright? Then we can talk.”
“You killed him!” Kyle cried, unable to help himself. “Both of you!”
Todd dropped his head with what might have been shame, but Frank just stared a hole into him.
“It was an accident, boy. We weren’t tryin’ to kill him.”
“You think that matters?!” Kyle said. “After what you were planning on doing to him? I know all about the shit you village idiots have been up to. And once I leave here everyone else will too.”
Frank’s face reddened.
Todd lifted the rifle.
“Don’t, you idiot!” Frank said. “We ain’t here to kill him.”
“Ain’t got no choice,” Todd said. “We’re runnin’ out of time!”
“I said, don’t–” Frank began before the gunshot cut him off.
Kyle instinctively flinched, bringing his hands up and turning away.
There was a burst of red light and Kyle was thrown to the floor, slamming his head against the wood. The light sped away from him and struck Todd where he stood.
Todd opened his mouth to scream but was too late. His exposed skin peeled off and flew away behind him like ribbons in strong wind, leaving a flaming trail in their wake. The blackened, flayed man took one shuddering step backward and collapsed.
“Jesus Christ!” Frank screamed and half-jumped, half-fell away from Todd. He stared at Kyle. “You should’ve never touched that book, boy! You’re damned! Damned!”
Kyle wanted to respond but he felt tired. His head thrummed and he just wanted to close his eyes for a second, just for a second.
He heard Frank’s footsteps as he ran away, then closed his eyes.
* * * * * *
Kyle was somewhere.
He wasn’t sure where, but he was on his feet. It was black as far as his eyes could see. He knew there was a floor beneath his feet, ‘cause he could feel it, and it had a slight glow to it. Not much, but just enough to make it out. He couldn’t tell what color it was but could see the red reflection, like it had been freshly mopped with blood.
A man stepped out of the blackness. He wore a dark gray morning coat, the vest beneath of the same color but lighter. His black trousers led down to shiny black boots.
“Hello, Kyle,” he said, and tipped his hat. Kyle didn’t know what kind of hat it was, but it looked as old as the rest of his suit.
“Uh, hello,” Kyle said, then asked the first question that popped into his head. “Where am I?”
“Oh, around,” the man said. “I see you’re back up on your drumsticks. How’s the head?”
“Shitty, I think,” Kyle said. “Because I seem to be either dreaming or seeing things that aren’t real. Either of which is pretty bad right now.”
The man smiled. “You’ll be right soon enough. I must say, I’m happy to see you. I ain’t had the pleasure of company in a month of Sundays. Not since your grandfather took his earth bath.”
Kyle shook his head, now positive he had a concussion. He was nowhere and talking to a guy who looked and sounded like he just stepped out of Gone with the Wind.
“You know my family?”
“Indeed! We’ve all been friends for time out of mind. And I hope to be your friend as well, Kyle. A good friend. A friend who can help you.”
“I don’t need any help, unless you can help me wake up.”
The man laughed and the red reflection of the floor pulsed brighter. “You ain’t asleep, dear boy. But you ain’t quite awake neither. Now, I’m not one to draw the long bow, so I’m just going to cut to the quick here. I can help you with your current predicament, ‘cause right now we both have the same problem.”
“This gaggle of idiots who aren’t fit to lead blind monkeys is about to unleash somethin’ that they don’t understand. It ain’t going to be good for them, you, or me.”
“You’re talking about the summoning.”
“Indeed, I am,” the man said. “I’m gonna help you stop it, just like I helped you back there with those two morons.”
Realization settled in. “You did that to Todd?”
“Well, it’s my book. Given to your family long ago. It won’t let any harm come to you…well, as long as you and I are on the same page, the pun definitely intended.”
“What am I supposed to do? Shit, I wouldn’t even believe any of this if I hadn’t just witnessed the time-traveling chapel and talked to my dead cousin.”
The man nodded sympathetically. “Very astute. It is quite a lot to take in at once. But trust me when I say that I will lead you down the path. All you have to do is take my book, it will let you know what to do from there. Together we can put a stop to this before anyone else ends up like your poor cousin.”
“Okay,” Kyle said with a deep breath. “I’m ready.”
“That’s the spirit! When next you open your eyes, you’ll be right back at the chapel.”
“Just a second. One last question.”
The man tilted his head and raised one eyebrow quizzically.
“Are you him? Satan?”
The man smiled. “I am an adversary, but not yours. Besides, I’m more of a teacher really. I show you and your kind what no one else will. Others would keep you in the dark, but me? I bring nothing but light. Now, are you ready?”
Kyle nodded, not knowing if his question was actually answered or not. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he was back on the chapel floor, his head throbbing. He got to his feet and walked shakily out through the chapel doors.
* * * * * *
It was full-dark as Kyle exited the chapel and entered a circle of light. All around him were people, the entire congregation. Some had parked their cars and trucks in the field, the headlights all trained on the chapel. Others held torches, shiny red gas cans at their feet.
His Uncle Jim stepped forward, hands raised in front of him. “Kyle! Thank God, you’re okay! C’mon, son. Come with me and I’ll explain everything.”
“No,” Kyle said. “Hunter already told me everything.”
Jim shook his head. “Hunter’s dead, Kyle. You know that. We buried him not three hours ago.”
“I do know,” Kyle said. “I know that he came to me, told me how he really died, and what you sick fucks had planned for him.”
Jim stepped closer. “I don’t know what you think you saw, Kyle. But if it was in that accursed chapel then it wasn’t nothin’ good. When you didn’t show at the cemetery, I knew somethin’ bad had happened, and if somethin’ bad was gonna happen I knew it would be here. So, I asked Frank and Todd to come check while I said goodbye to my son.”
The book felt hot in his hand. “Bullshit! They tried to kill me, like they killed Kyle!”
“Kyle’s death was an accident!” Jim yelled. “It’s true we was keeping him at the church, wasn’t lettin’ him go, because we knew what’d happen if we did. And we were right. He escaped, and tried his damnedest to get here, to the chapel. Our blood callin’ him to the book.”
Kyle fiercely shook his head. “Lies! I know they killed him.”
Frank stepped up beside Jim, his head hung low. “It’s true, I was responsible. But it was a plain accident. I had no way of knowin’ he was gonna fall that way. But we had to try, had to keep him from doing what you’re doin’ right this second.”
“And what’s that?”
“You spoke to him,” Jim said, sorrow in his voice. “To it. The man in the chapel, the man that’s followed our family like a damn haint for generations. You can’t listen to it, Kyle. That damn thing has caused nothin’ but misery with every word out of its mouth. Now please, I’m beggin’ you, toss the book back into the chapel and come away. Let us do what we came here to do, what we should’ve done in the first damn place.”
Kyle raised the book in front of him and opened the cover, watching with satisfaction as they all shrank away from him.
“Don’t come near me,” he said. “This place is all that’s left of my family.”
“I’m your family!” Jim cried. “Me and your aunt. We’re still here. You’re not alone in this.”
“Don’t talk to me about family! You locked up your son and got him killed!”
Jim shook his head as Frank patted his shoulder.
“It ain’t gonna work, Jim,” Frank said. “He’s too far gone. You see that. But we still have work to do.”
Frank motioned to someone, lifting his hand then pointing. Off to Kyle’s left, he heard breaking glass.
He turned to see the chapel’s roof on fire, as someone threw another flaming bottle of gas through one of the chapel’s windows.
“No!” Kyle screamed. He didn’t know what to do but his hands did, flipping through the book in a blur of pages.
His eyes found what he needed, and his mouth began to recite the words.
“I am many and more!” Kyle cried. “A multitude within and alone without!”
Cries came from all around him as he spoke.
“Somebody stop him!”
“Grab the book! Burn it!”
Someone from the crowd threw a rock, it stopped as if hitting an invisible barrier and fell harmlessly to the ground. The person who threw it screamed from somewhere as the red light enveloped them and turned their flesh to fire. Kyle paid them no attention.
“I bring you knowledge of the purest form! I bring you unclouded truth!”
The screaming came from many mouths as the crowd saw what happened and felt what was about to happen.
He raised his hands to the sky and the opened book hovered in the air before him.
“I bring you light!”
The people wailed and ran, but no one could run faster than fire, faster than light. He kindled the flame in each of their bellies, felt it grow, felt it multiply until flames sprang from their mouths and pushed past their eyes, popping them in their skulls. One by one their clothing burst into flame and their skin melted and ran like wax as they tried to flee.
The night was an expanse of black, the congregation nothing more than tiny candle flames, going out one by one.
* * * * * *
Kyle woke on the ground, hot and feverish in the humid air.
The light of dawn was fast approaching, stretching rays of sunlight through the trees and illuminating the aftermath of the night before.
He was surrounded by scorched earth and statues of ash.
Ash puffed up in small gray clouds as he stood. He walked forward, his knees shaking, and his mouth filled with the taste of death.
His uncle still stood. Jim was gray as stone and his features were muddled but it was unmistakably him. Kyle reached out and touched Jim’s arm, then recoiled in horror as his uncle began to break apart and collapse into a heap of ash at his feet.
“Jesus Christ,” Kyle said, his eyes overflowing with tears that made tracks through the ash on his cheeks. “What have I done?”
“What have we done,” a voice spoke from behind him.
Kyle turned to see the man from the chapel, his clothes still resplendently clean, sitting upon a blackened log, part of what used to be the chapel.
“And to answer your question,” the man said. “We have brought light to civilization. And it feels so, so good!”
Kyle slowly shook his head. “No, this…this was a massacre.”
“Yes,” the man said with a smile. “Reminds me of walking through the corpse-strewn battlefields during the War Between the States. Which I won for humanity, by the way. I’ve never been fond of slavery of any sort. No need to thank me, you’re already quite welcome.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?!” Kyle screamed. “Y-you tricked me! Made me slaughter these people! The talk of summoning an angel and everything else, all bullshit! Oh God, this is a dream, a nightmare, none of this is real.”
“Not at all, dear boy,” the man said and stood. “No trick, maybe a slight bit of misdirection. Because I am here, and I am an angel. An angel that’s lapsed in his devotion of the Maker, surely, but the title is still valid, of course.”
“Why?” Kyle pleaded. “Why did you make me do this?”
“I don’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do, apostate. Tell me true, do you think the world would be better off without religion?”
Kyle couldn’t lie. He nodded.
“Well, here’s your chance, dear boy, here is your chance! You and I will start right down here in the mighty Bible Belt. Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee. And of course, we’ll have to take care of Texas, that’s the big daddy of them all. Gotta whole lot of churches to burn there, about twenty-five thousand last time I counted. But hopefully by the time we get there, we’ll already have a congregation of our own. A whole army of Lightbringers, an army of people who think like us, and can do what you can now do.”
He swallowed hard. “What? What can I do?”
“This!” the man said, spreading his arms wide and gesturing to the carnage around them. “You don’t even need the book anymore, ‘cause the power is in you! You did something your weak ancestors would never do, an act that even the mere thought of drove your grandfather to hang himself from the chapel rafters. You consumed the knowledge, and now you get the pleasure of sharing it with the world.”
The man clapped Kyle on the back, leaving a sick heat where his hand touched.
“You and me, dear boy. We are going to bring the light, and drive humanity out of these dark ages of jumping at shadows. No more cherry-pickin’ passages from a book that’s no more divine than a book of children’s fairy tales. Now let’s get a move on. As Mr. Frost once said, ‘miles to go before we sleep,’ and all that. And just to prove we’re all friends here, breakfast is on me.”
The man from the chapel walked through the ashes and Kyle followed.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableRyan Harville Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A