St. Augustine
written by Robert Michaud

Only London remained. He was the only one who held sweet memories of the Reverend. All others had either gone or died. With a mixture of sorrow and pride, London stepped through the burnt door frame, onward into the bowels of wreckage and into the inner sanctum.

“How have I allowed myself to become so alone...” London’s words floated in the dead stale air, so quiet that even his sensitive ears were unsure of their presence.

His delicate fingers glided over the cold ashen burn that licked along a large wooden pillar. He could still feel its warmth, even though it had been nearly ten years since the glorious church had burned to the cold lifeless earth. The scarring scent of gasoline and burning newspaper brought tears to his eyes. He was there that night. He knew that the Reverend was never coming back.

Why had he come here? Why was London doing this to himself? Since he had been so alone, he wanted something to confirm it. He needed proof that the Reverend loved him... proof that the Reverend was not some cruel dream, leaving at the first sight of the malicious sun. Within these walls, London knew something awaited him. Some unspoken treasure had lured him here from unfathomable distances, and the boy would not leave until he found it.

The burned lumber, intruding weeds and melted glass would not tell him what he was looking for. There, behind a crippled pew, smashed in half by a fallen support, seven hymnals eagerly awaited. They hadn’t been touched in these ten long years. Their once forest green covers were etched black and white with the long quenched flames. Their gold leaf was covered in rot and sweet moss. London could feel the corroding roots digging into the sacred pages, eventually eating up every last word and praise.

He wanted to leaf through the old songs. Maybe he would find a note etched by the sacred Reverend, more holy and rewarding than all of the words in the Bible. But the boy knew that what he was looking for was beneath the church, hidden from the cruel sun, forever cold.

He needed to get into the basement. Twelve years ago, he would have called the dark cellar home. He had lived there with the rest of the Reverend’s herd. Brother Daniel and Joshua were now lost, but alive. They had been blind even before the Reverend saved them. Jeremy was taken by one of the Reverend’s kind, never to be heard of again. The rest were dead, and rightly forgotten. For those blissful years, the basement was his home, and he needed to figure out how to return.

Both the back and front staircases, located on polar opposites of the building, had been mercilessly blocked by falling timber and sheet metal. The front staircase had been eaten by the fire, bringing down the glorious walls over the portal down. The back stair case, however, must have been crushed and covered by snowfall. The pink of the rotten broken wood there was untouched by flame. All of the windows protruding from the basement had been bricked in by himself and Daniel when the Reverend first acquired St. Augustine Lutheran Church. London cursed the very handiwork which once brought delicate praise from the sweet Reverend.

London toyed with the thought of driving his car into the half exposed basement wall. He even thought of re-setting the building ablaze. But he needed to be careful. There was something very delicate within the scorched walls that needed to be extracted with great care.

He exited the way he came in. The sun was still well below the horizon, so London had plenty of time. He slowly walked around the building. The grass had grown high and had died in the early fall, leaving shriveled brown corpses all about. It was now on the verge of snowing, although the ground still reflected the dead brown of early October, undaunted by the freezing snow. A malnourished pine tree twisted upwards, its roots entangling the bitter permafrost hidden below its tormented trunk.

Much had changed since London had last gazed upon the once inspiring church. He remembered its cream green walls, and its fine mason work. There used to be a bell tower out front, small and old. There it stood like and old man, until one day a support rotted right through, and the tower fell into the gravel walk-way. London had to excavate the base of the structure so that the Reverend could pull it out with the church van.

Even the glorious plastic stained glass windows had broken, burned and melted away. Here and there, hidden within the grass were colorful shards, stained and washed by the sun. Picking out a purple shard from a grass clump, London bent and raised it in his hand in the glow of the street light. It seemed now that the color was only a vague smoke of what it used to be. The boy thought of all of the admiration that was locked inside of each little piece. How many hours had he, alone stared into the glorious colors. Sometimes, before the Reverend would wake, as the sun set, London would just sit before the windows, watching the colors lazily move across the floor. Eventually, when the colors would sleep, the Reverend would awake.

Before he knew it, the shard had managed to slide through his tender flesh. A barely visible stream of blood welled up beneath the shard of wonder. Setting it to the ground carefully, London watched the blood till it stopped flowing in the brisk night air. London was exceedingly careful not to crush a single shard under foot as he moved through the broken fence and towards the back of the church.

On the dark side of the fence, facing the back of the church, there was a small nest made of gathered pink insulation. Some creature, roughly cat sized, had created an unsightly home nestled up beside the dead church. It, too, looked as though none had visited it for several years. The wear of winter was heavy on its sunken wet walls. London could hardly even smell the delicate animal musk in the air as he walked passed it.

The pink reminded him of the blankets he once stapled to the boiler room walls. The Reverend, complaining about the cold, ordered the boys to insulate the boiler room. It was during that time that the Reverend went out for hours on end, and would often come back not himself. More than once, he would bring someone back with him. It didn’t take London that long to find out that the people he brought back were more creature than man. And yet, somehow, they all seemed to share something with the sacred Reverend. Even the one London hated so much, Bobbi, the woman.

He remembered how cold his fingers became on the metal staple gun. And yet he could not bring himself to stop, even though the rest of the children were in the kitchen playing some new exciting board game. One abused garage sale blanket after another found their way onto the walls, until at last, London could bear it no more. He sat in the corner of the boiler room, praising the machine’s noise as it overwhelmed the annoying blather of his brothers.

There, as the sun arose, London could see lines of orange and yellow light illuminate on the backs of his blanketed wall. Tiny portals between the abused boards provided an escape into the morning world. The wood was thin and perforated there, and after all these years, it must even be thinner.

London’s hand plunged through the rotting wood, half of a charred brick held firmly in his grip. The wood splintered and cut at the boy’s tender flesh, but he continued until the wood provided him entrance into the boiler room. By the time he had finished, he could feel tendrils of wood hiding under his tight skin. The torn blankets spewed their dirty stuffing onto the grass around him. He knew that, in the darkness, there was more than blanket stuffing awaiting him. The warm stream of blood soon chilled on the night air and sucked all sensation away from his fingertips.

With some coaxing, he managed to convince his hand to drop the broken brick. He was not sure if the reluctance to do so was because of the fear of driving the wood shards deeper, or the fear that something lurked within the basement. Even if he did keep the brick, he was sure that it could do no harm to anything that would sleep within the walls of St. Augustine Lutheran Church.

* * *

Once London had managed to bring himself and his long black coat through the broken wall, it took him time to regain his vision. It was dark inside, and it smelled horrible.

The water heater must have exploded several years ago, for its ancient contents laid smooth on the floor. Its innards had given life to all sorts of algae and moss. London found its smell to be that of cat urine and ancient rot. But his bleeding fist and overwhelmed senses were of no matter to the boy. Gliding his bloodied hand subconsciously through his dyed blonde hair, he slid his eyes shut so that they could adjust to the oblivion about him. The blood eagerly slid off of his hand and entangled into his golden locks, slicking them back and away from his sensitive face and eyes. Some of the sticky fluid even managed to entangle the rich brown roots. Something was terribly wrong down here.

Once he opened his eyes, the infected pink light of the street lamp illuminated the entire room. There, on the floor in the algae, were foot prints, and not the footprints of young London. Among the slippery sludge lay the sign of Nike shoes as though they were ancient tracks left by long dead creatures in petrified mud. Not knowing the nature of plant filth, London could not date the presence of the creature. He knew that, whatever it was, it might still be in the basement. Regretting the loss of his charred brick, the boy turned and broke off a reasonable sized spike of wood from his shattered entrance. The rotten wood crumbled and bent to the boy’s will. The frozen blood on his right hand had made it lazy and uncooperative, but it could still hold grip on his new found weapon.

For a moment, London wondered if Daniel or Joshua had made it back and remembered the Reverend. Perhaps the prints were theirs. If it was Daniel, London would not hesitate driving the wooden shard he held in his hand through the boy’s neck. Daniel nor Joshua deserved to remember their life with the Reverend. Once, they were London’s brothers, but never would they be his kin again. But what if it were Jeremy, the lost brother? The one Bobbi stole away from the Reverend after his death.

London knew that it was too late to be afraid. Calmly, he reached his good hand out and touched the cold door knob. There it lingered in his hand for several moments, telling him its story through gentle images, as the timbers above him had done. The door’s story, however, was much more current and because of this, more vivid.

Something had touched the door knob. Something cold and unlike any of London’s brothers. Whatever it was, it had hands and fingers, just like the boy who touched it now, but the thing that passed through the door before him was not at all human. It smelled of fear, but not as though it was generating fear, but instead it had saturated and bathed itself in the fears of others. Gently, London found his wrist turning the knob and his weight sliding the door open.

What met London in the doorway was not expected by the boy. Suddenly he wished for the oily scent of asphalt and the sweet smell of dead grass as the hallway belched the scent of mummified death directly into the nose and eyes of young London. There, hidden within the death was the animal musk, the smell of old camp fires and the smell of human corpse.

London remembered dead Matthew. The smell fought the memories to the surface, as if ancient crude were bubbling up through cracks within the boy’s mind. One day, in this very church, Matthew deemed that the Reverend should be awakened. He was only a boy and knew no better. It was that very evening, sun still high, when London had to carry Matthew's body to the dumpster in a trash bag. The smell could not even be contained by the black plastic. London wasn’t even sure if Matthew was dead or not. He looked so serene, as though he were still sleeping. The only suspicious element was his horrendous neck, kinked at an unnatural angle. He was glad that he did not see how the Reverend did it. He was also thankful that he did not have to place Matthew's pink tongue back into his mouth, although he did accidentally see the Reverend do so with his caring white hands.

The smell of dead boy existed here. The scent of soiled everything penetrated the air, saturated the walls and eagerly sought audience with London’s burning lungs. There was also that smell of wet smoke that mixed intermittently with the scent of corpse. Truly, if London had eaten today, he would have lost the contents of his stomach, not unlike the unfortunate water heater. Instead, he just felt his belly knot up, both in fear and disgust. He crumpled over, like a puppet with its strings cut. The very lining of his stomach threatened to twist and split open. It would have been less painful were there something to exit.

Seven hours ago, he had stood before a soup kitchen. There, the lowly citizens of Fairbanks lulled about, as though they had lost minds. This was where the people who were forgotten lived. Everyone’s eyes were dead as they looked at the boy with suspicion. Even though his stomach screamed with hunger, the smell of pity brought sickness to the boy. True, he had money, but he needed the money to live. Eating, now, seemed only like a luxury or comfort. Something the boy was sure he could live without... at least for several more days.

Soon his sense of smell died. The scent seemed to lull into static. The walls in the hallway were once wet. The orange finished wood that had existed there was now marred by white and stained rot, like the boiler room. Water had penetrated every last corner of the building, brining with it sacred life. But the life here, without the sun, was wretched and torn. Everything seemed in a state of decay and sickness. Even the very air itself felt heavy with microscopic corruption.

The hall lead past the kitchen and into the open downstairs sanctum. This was where the Reverend was murdered. This was where God, in all his glory, had died ten long years ago. This was where life had ended for London. This was where the streetlights could not reach.

Jason had killed him. Jason had spilled the Reverend’s blood, after everything the man had done for him. There, the boy watched as Jason stood over London’s sacred father, sinking the kitchen blades beyond sight into the Reverend’s body. Again and again Jason stabbed, too fast for London to even attempt to save his love. The fire raged above and the Reverend died beneath. It was as though London was merely an unfortunate child, watching his whole world die for the first time. It ate him away.

And here was London today, eyes straining against the darkness, nose stinging against the smell. He wanted to lay down, into the filth. He wanted to shut his eyes and remain in the dark forever. The quiet cold rushed through the boy. His legs became weary. He wanted to crawl into the thin carpet. He wanted to seep through the cracks of the cement. He wanted to penetrate the frozen earth. He wanted to find the Reverend’s sacred blood that rested below the foundation of the dead church.

* * *

How long he stood there, he could not tell. He looked towards the boiler room at the end of the hall. Again, it was the pink glow of street lights. Had the sun crept through the door, or was this the same night? Regardless, London was cold. He could not see.

Reaching into his dry warm pocket, he felt bic pens smoothly mesh with his green lighter. Finally, when sure of his holding, he withdrew the lighter and flicked at the flint. He could no longer feel his bloodied hand, but he was fairly sure that it still clutched lifelessly to the wooden shard. Again, the lighter sputtered sparks. Each flick was a brief photograph of London’s surroundings. He was facing south, looking at the bar that opened up the kitchen to the lower sanctum. Behind him, the Reverend’s body could still be waiting. With a final flick, light burned into the room as the tiny flame sustained.

London turned very slowly, so as not to awaken the Reverend, were he still sleeping where London had left him. Everything was so small now. The massive sanctum in which he would play was now a shriveled farce of his old home. Shadows leapt about the room, distracting the boy with untrue movement. It seemed as though the vicious darkness was not eager to have all of its secrets uncovered at once. There, on the eastern wall, was a form. It, too, was painfully small and draped in stained clothing. Its crumpled cramped feet were discolored, as were the shreds of cloth which covered the body. Slowly, London approached the corpse.

All around were signs of death. Small rats had given up their lives here. They were mutilated, twisted and bitten. The cloth over the corpse was rotten and stained by water. It looked suspiciously like one of the old blankets that London had once pinned onto the walls of the boiler room. With every step, the corpse took on more detail. Before London could restrain himself, he stood directly over the corpse, his mess of a hand attempting to angle the wooden shard into the blanket allowing the corpse to be uncovered.

Finally, the unwilling covers and rags slid off of Jeremy. He was laying on his side with his back painfully arched against the wall. With his neck twisted, Jeremy’s absent eyes gazed mournfully at the intricate patters on the tiled ceiling. His wrists and tiny fingers still clung to the shredded blanket. Something was terribly wrong with his neck. Since his skin looked dry and paper like, it was difficult to make out the texture of dried muscle and tendon contrasting against the flesh. Every inch of his exposed body, including the horrendous wound, were all the color and texture of ancient book leaf. Even the exposed innards of the boy’s neck were yellow and brown. All vibrancy had left Jeremy long ago. His bones willingly protruded past his muscle, but they could not pierce his tough flesh. He was the shriveled husk of the boy London knew. But still, London could recognize Jeremy, like a mother recognizes a drowned child.

How long Jeremy had peered at the ceiling, London did not know. He felt so useless and ignorant. The boy didn’t know how to date aged flesh, or aged muck. He knew so much about this place, but so little about how it had come to be this way. London thought about touching Jeremy, feeling his past. But would Jeremy tell? How long had he been here? How long had he been in pain before he died? Somehow, London caught himself thinking that Jeremy was still in pain, his face twisted and shriveled as it were, mouth gaping open towards God. But London knew well that Jeremy was beyond pain. He would never feel such again. London often wished the same for himself.

Stepping back, London heard the smash of a mummified rat. He couldn’t even feel its fight against his heel. It merely buckled under the lightest touch in one last crumpling crunch. There were many rats in here. Had Jeremy tried to eat them before he died? No. Jeremy would have rather died, and, telling from the body, he did.

Shocked by the crumpling sound of dead rat, London jerked his body. Before the boy knew it, his center of gravity was lost. Reeling through space, London felt his body falling into the darkness as the flame dangling on the end of his lighter vanquished.

There London stayed, flush against the cool ground. He didn’t dare think of all of the dead rats pressing against his new black coat. He had fallen on his back and his head had cracked upon the cement, only guarded by the painfully thin layer of ancient carpet. His arm laid outreached, lighter still in grip, as his wounded hand burned from the fall. Drawing his numb fingers towards his chest, he was somehow soothed to know that the wooden weapon was still with him.

Again, the lighter bled light throughout the darkened church basement. There was a dead fire located halfway across the floor from Jeremy. London had almost fell directly into the damp ancient burn. There, on the other side, to the west, laid an identical bundle. Something had lived there on the ragged blankets. There was an indentation of a man, bent into a fetal position.

Whatever had laid there had since gone, leaving a single form in its place. It was a square, resting gently and comfortably upon the stained and soiled bedding. Its well loved pages were bent and warped with moisture and dirty fingers. The worn leather cover gleamed in the dancing flame. London stopped breathing. A tremble shot through him. Beginning only as a tremor, it soon wracked his entire body. He felt the lazy blood whirl into life, as it shot through his head and behind his eyes.

He fell to his knees, knocking the still bones of long dead creatures to the side. Gently, he outstretched his bloody hand which no longer gripped to the feeble weapon. He watched as his fingers touched the surface of the book, the frozen and dried blood clinging lifelessly to his fist. He could not feel the book, nor his fingers. Carefully, he unclenched his hand and coaxed the book cover to lay open. Within, the delicate scrawls of the Reverend lay across the water stained page.

“Reverend Alexander Wallace (1923 - ~ )”

Someone hateful had defiled the page. In place of the blank was etched, most likely in some unholy fluid, “1981”. In desperation and fear, London bluntly fisted the book cover shut, as to protect the sacred page from any harm the vile church basement could do. Forcing it to his chest, London stood and turned towards the hallway leading to freedom. Careful not to slip on the boiler’s bile, young white London made his way out through the shattered hole.

The sweet smell of dead grass and the electrical moan of street lamps were treasures to the boy’s sensitive ears and nose. He paced quickly towards his car waiting for him in the front parking lot. Although his heart lightened with accomplishment, he was sure that Bobbi had been there. He would have been much more satisfied. Knowing that she was not dead meant that she was still alive in the night somewhere... as he was sure Jason was.

The car heater was bliss to his burning fingers and toes. His face and ears turned red while the sanitary car blazed down the frozen streets of Fairbanks by night. The book lay content in the opposing seat as the driver’s eyes gleamed with new purpose. London had heard that Jason had run to the South. He knew people in Portland that had told him about Jason. For now he would go South, to find the murderer. The Reverend’s book was safe now, and London remembered everything.

* * *

Bobbi awoke to the cold Fairbanks night to the scent of fresh air. From her nest in the ceiling tiles, she slithered down towards the old camp fire like a spider with rotten joints. Her body was a thin shell of what it had been in the past. Her once blonde hair was now matted in the rotten filth that infiltrated every inch of the dead church. She could smell a boy on the air... a familiar boy. There she found his blood, smeared carelessly along her bed, where her precious book had stayed for so many years. It was her only sacred relic, and he had taken it from her. It was time for Bobbi to emerge into the world again and forsake her torpor there in the bowels of St. Augustine. It was time for Bobbi to awaken and begin her hunt again.

written by Robert Michaud

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