Donald could see the golden hillsides roll by out of the corner of his eye. Long dead stalks loomed on all sides, and trees with half-skeletal branches reached to the sky. The late afternoon sun shining through the driver’s side window made him sleepy. He stole a glance at Megan, sprawled against the passenger side door, her milky white left leg extended towards him. Her thick black hair seemed to cushion her head against the window. After a second, he looked back towards the road. In the distance, he saw a car cresting a hill, silhouetted against the sun. Sooner or later, he would pass that car. This was the only real road for miles, a one-lane blacktop that wound through the countryside like some pagan holy ground, like the chalk horses in England.
It had been a quiet drive. Donald was a careful driver, but it didn’t matter. He could have swerved across the road all day, he could have sped at three times the speed limit (though he doubted his Cadillac could have borne it). His only concern was sleep. The countryside had been the same all day, and he had not seen a city since picking up Megan that morning. Let sleep overtake me, he thought, and the car would drift into a ditch, or smash into a tree. And then where would Megan and I be?
He had seen farmers here and there, alongside motionless tractors, performing pantomimes about agricultural problems. From just momentary glimpses, he could tell that even they were not concerned. The crops were in; fall was here. Only boredom could drive them to discuss matters capable of waiting through the winter. He shivered in the warmth of the day, thinking of snow blanketing the world.
Now the once-distant car topped the hill in front of him and he recognized it as another Cadillac, same year as his, jet black, its windows heavily tinted. He tried to see the driver through the darkened windshield, and failed. Once the car passed him, his eyes would dart to the rearview mirror, following its journey far away from him. He felt a momentary kinship with his fellow driver.
In the shotgun seat, Megan stirred. She raised her arms gracefully, like a swan extending its wings, yawning. Donald’s eyes returned to the road and he felt the light and warmth of the sun flicker upon him as the car passed behind a hill.
“How long have I been asleep, Don?” Her dark eyes gazed at him. They sparkled in her wan, innocent face.
“Only half an hour, Meg.” Eyes back on the road.
“And how far to your apartment, Don?” A childish whine came into her voice.
“Another couple of hours, Meg.” He gave her arm a pat.
“And then, all of winter break?”
“Yes. I’m going to spoil you rotten.” He smiled. “Are they taking care of you there?”
“You always say that.” She pursed her lips. “I’m fine.”
She looked out the window and reviewed the procession of hills that paraded in front of her. She looked like she could be Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He had told her once and she had laughed. She was studying to be a dancer, not an actress, and even he wouldn’t convince her otherwise.
“Have the teachers found any jobs for you? They should have, with graduation right around the corner.” It was hard to keep from chiding her sometimes.
She smiled and giggled. “Actually, my ballet instructor…I’ve told you about her?”
“The Wagnerian one?”
Now she was holding back laughter. “Yes, Madam Helga. I hardly know how she ever was a dancer. She looks like an opera diva.” She hummed a bit of Ride of the Valkyries before finally breaking into sidesplitting laughter.
He waited for her to calm down. “What does she think?”
“She thinks I should go to a school in Europe. What do you think, Don? Could you pay for it?”
He didn’t look at her. She had a pleading look that he found hard to resist. He adjusted his grip on the steering wheel.
“I just figured that you were getting enough training here. That you’d be ready to work after it.” His voice sounded miles away.
“But this is an amazing school.”
The road curved and he drove into it too fast. They both swayed in their seats. She touched his upper arm with a delicate hand.
“It would only be for a year. They don’t want you to get old while you train. And they don’t make you live in a dormitory.”
He looked over at her. “I wouldn’t be much of a patron if I didn’t help, would I?”
She let go and smiled, her thin lips drawn over sparkling white teeth.
“Thanks, Don. I knew you’d understand.” She looked out the passenger side window again. “Can we stop here for a little bit?”
Don slowed down and looked over her. Coming up on the right was a sparkling white tower, capped with a plinth. Around the tower lay construction equipment. The ground looked puffy and red, stripped bare of vegetation. There was a small gravel lot to the side of the building, and Don could see a few cars sitting in it. There didn’t seem to be anyone around the building.
“Please, Don! I need to use the bathroom. And it would be nice to stretch my legs.”
He nodded and kept his eyes on the building. As they came closer, he could see a short gravel road that branched off from the main road. He kept slowing down. But as he was about to turn, he felt the urge to speed up and leave the building disappearing in his rearview mirror. The sun seemed to disappear behind another hill.
Now the building loomed up in front of him, and he could tell it was some kind of cathedral. There were no signs identifying it as the First Congregation of Some Denomination or Another, but the cross cut into the tower was enough. The walls looked like ivory, as if the corpse of a giant had been quarried to build it. The spire (though it was less symmetrical than any spire he had seen) cut the sky like nothing he had seen out here. How large a congregation was there for this monstrosity? Who was going to fill the pews?
The spire cast an arrow-shaped shadow that pointed into the east. He shivered.
The two of them just watched the cathedral as it grew before them. Don didn’t remember seeing it here the last time he had driven to see Megan, two months ago. He had been preoccupied with other things, true. But something like that, in an area like this… He could not believe he was that preoccupied
As he parked the car, he found himself lecturing her. He felt a little ridiculous. She had always acted with obedience and respect. Just as she should.
“It’s fine. I’ll just use the bathroom and then I’ll come right out.” She opened the door and stepped out. He watched her go up to the church, his trenchcoat wrapped around her. It had been a long time since he’d been to church. He didn’t even remember that he had never gone unless he saw one. He watched the entrance swallow up his girl and settled back in his seat to wait.
Barely thirty seconds had passed before she hurried out the door, looking behind her. He sat upright and put his hands on the ignition, waiting for her to reach the car. But as she got close, he saw Megan was smiling. She came up to his door and knocked on his window. He rolled it down.
“What is it?”
“The cathedral.” She leaned on the sill, slightly out of breath. “It’s amazing. You need to see this.”
“No, I don’t. I just want to get going.”
“You’re no fun. It’s brand new. We’re going to be some of the first people to see it. You’ll love it.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“There’s no one in there. They must all be at a service. We’ll have it all to ourselves.” She laughed. “You didn’t want to go to that studio downtown, and once we got there, you loved it. Trust me.”
He rolled the window up again. He opened his door, she moving nimbly away as he did so, and felt gravel crunch beneath his feet. She pulled him behind her, up the great marble steps and into the cathedral.
It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dark of the entrance hall as the door swung shut behind them. He was glad the door made a muffled clunking noise when it shut. It meant that this place must be real, not some fever dream.
The two of them stood in silence, a grin playing across Megan’s lips. He looked up at the stained glass windows, set high on the wall, an indistinct mix of purple, red, black and peach. The sunlight shone through the windows almost directly across the room, forming a patch of muddy, dark colors. He felt a delicate hand slip underneath his arm, and he looked over at Megan. She stared up into the dark emptiness that swallowed the arches in the ceiling. Laughing, she pulled him up to the door of the chapel. She went to open the door, but he held her back. He listened for noise. Would a service be going on now? He realized he had lost track of time.
“Just a peek!” She shook him off and opened the door.
A dark red carpet stretched from the doorway to the altar. To either side, straight-backed mahogany pews sat empty in the dim candlelight. The altar was made of black marble with white veins, which ran together to make grey patches. Donald could swear those grey patches pulsed. What little light there was came from candles and sunlight shining through an abstract stained glass window set high in the ceiling. The window showed a misshapen, melting cross at the center of some chaotic force, though what that force was, he could not tell.
Donald realized that the chapel was occupied. A low, moaning hum drew his attention to a few bent, wizened figures kneeling or sitting in the pews, while far behind the altar stood a white-haired, thin priest, his arms folded in his cassock, looking at the floor.
The humming stopped and the priest began to look up. Donald turned around and walked out, pulling Megan behind him. He did not want to see that man’s eyes.
As they crossed the chapel’s threshold, back into the lobby, the doors creaked shut behind them.
“What was that about?” Megan straightened her clothing and glared at him, her lips pursed. That expression made him think of what she would look like when she was older.
“I didn’t want to disturb them.” He avoided her eyes. Out here, with just Megan, his fears seemed ridiculous.
“I bet they would have let us sit down for a minute.” Her voice took on the edge of a whine. “Religious people are nice.”
“Not all of them.” He opened the door to the parking lot. “We need to get moving.”
“I still need to use the bathroom.”
“We’ll stop at the next restaurant.” He walked out into the dying sun’s rays and felt safe. Behind him, Megan’s heels crunched in the gravel.
“You are such a jerk.”
When they reached the car, he noticed that the back end seemed to have sunk. Giving a small grunt, he crouched next to the wheel well.
Megan was leaning against the passenger side door, arms folded. “What?”
“We’ve got a flat.” He stood up. “Damn country roads.”
“Don’t you have a spare?”
“Sure, sure.” He opened up the trunk and began digging around for the tire. “We just don’t need another delay.”
“Whatever.” Megan shivered. “It’s getting cold out here.”
He tugged at the jack, which was stuck under some junk. “Then wait in the church.”
Crunch, crunch, went the gravel as she walked away. Donald swore as he cut himself on something inside the trunk.
It took him about half an hour to get the jack under the car and raise the vehicle up. The jack kept shifting in the gravel, and he came close to crushing his hand once or twice. By the time he had taken the tire off and put the spare on, another quarter of an hour had passed.
The sky was a mottled red, and Donald felt himself sweat and shiver at the same time. Megan had his jacket, he remembered.
He looked back at the cathedral. In the setting sun, the stained glass windows had an eerie glow. He walked to the double doors and pulled one open.
As he stepped inside, he felt the sweat on his back and under his arms start to dry. The air was cool and crisp.
He stood alone in the nave. He opened the door to the chapel just a crack. He looked through the opening, but he could see no one inside. The priest, the parishioners from before, they were all gone.
He shut the door and looked around the alcove. He listened for a sound, for any clue that there were other people inside.
At each end of the alcove stood a heavy wooden door. He tried the one on the right. It must have been held in place by a heavy bolt or crossbeam, because it did not even shift in the frame when he pressed against it.
He felt musty and bedraggled and wished for a bathroom, or even a mirror. He ran his fingers through his thin hair, which desperately covered his incipient bald spot.
He did not feel mature or experienced, the words that Megan used to reassure him with when he complained about being old. He just felt worn out.
He tried the door on the left. It swung light on its hinges, not making a sound as it opened. There was a circular stone staircase that hugged the wall, leading up to a wooden floor above.
He climbed the stairs, and when he stepped up through the hole in the floor, he found himself in a small circular room. Above him curled a continuation of the stone staircase. It had no railings, and there seemed to be no interruption of its spiral until it reached the top.
He knew he had been a while in changing the tire, but he could not picture Megan climbing this. No one would want to climb this alone.
He descended back to the alcove and went back to the chapel doors. He pushed one open and the groan of its hinges echoed.
He stepped inside. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. The candles that had been lit before were extinguished, and the only light was the reddish-purple that entered through the stained glass windows above.
He stood a moment in the doorway. No one was inside.
He whispered, “Megan.”
His whisper echoed and multiplied into a haunting hushed sound.
A gold candlestick glinted on the altar at the other end of the chapel. He walked towards it. The last rays of the dying sun made it glow, and the white veins in the black marble of the altar seemed to pulse.
The altar stood upon a raised stone dais. When he reached the steps to the dais, he paused. He felt eyes upon him. His impulse to climb these steps felt blasphemous.
He looked around and saw there was still no one inside the chapel. He grinned at his foolishness and ascended.
He could examine the cross more closely now. This close, he could tell the shape on the cross represented someone’s crucifixion, but the figure did not look like Jesus, or anything human. Its arms curved like no human being’s arms could, and the crossbeams seemed to project from the figure’s back.
The people before the figure were not kneeling in reverence or sorrow, but fear.
Footsteps woke him from his reverie. He turned and saw Megan approaching him. Her hair was tangled, her face flushed.
“Megan, where have you been?”
She smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
She moved up the steps, her shoulders hunched as if she was trying to shield something. Her hands were empty. When she reached him, she wrapped her arms tight around him and kissed his neck.
“You took so long,” she said.
He tried to push her away. “What are you doing?”
“I missed you.” She clung to him.
“Not here.” He turned from her mouth. “Someone might come in.”
She took his face in her hands and guided his mouth to hers. She drew herself up and kissed him. Her tongue darted into his mouth. He closed his eyes and sank into her embrace.
The kiss might have lasted a few minutes or it might have lasted an hour, for all he was aware of what was around him. He could have stood there forever in that embrace, so long awaited, if the pressure of her lips on his had not changed. It was just a moment and she resumed kissing him, but the spell was broken. He opened his eyes and saw her looking at the space behind him. He turned and saw the white-haired priest, coming towards him with a candlestick.
Donald tried to wriggle out of his incriminating embrace, but Megan just held him tighter.
“Sorry, Father. We were just leaving.” He tried to break free from Megan, but she dug her fingernails into his arms.
The priest came closer, saying nothing.
“Look, I don’t – ” He looked the priest in the eyes, to convince him. The man’s eyes were red. They were not bloodshot. His irises were red.
The priest lifted the candlestick above his head.
Megan tried to hold him in place with an almost super-human grip. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and Donald found the strength to pull free. The candlestick crunched against the altar, just below where his head had been. Sparks flew, and the priest raised the candlestick again. The man’s expression did not change.
Megan grabbed Donald’s arm again and tried to grapple him. Donald’s elbow connected with her jaw, knocking her back. Her head hit the altar with a sickening crack. She sprawled on the floor like a puppet with cut strings. A small trail of blood trickled from her nose.
Donald had no more time to think before the priest swung the candlestick again. Donald dodged, and the heavy brass candlestick thudded into his collarbone. Pain shot through every nerve in his upper body. The priest prepared to attack again.
Donald heard the doors at the rear of the chapel creak open, and he turned to call for help. A dozen men and women came through the door. They were all in their Sunday best.
“Help me!” Donald said. “He’s trying to kill me!” He stepped away from the priest, who now stood stock still. “He already killed that girl.”
The crowd moved towards him, without stopping or even so much as listening to his words. Donald could not make out their faces, but he could see their bared white teeth. They were smiling.
The priest stepped towards him again. Donald made a fist and punched him in the jaw, as hard as he could. He felt a jolt of energy run up his arm and his injured shoulder burned with pain. It took all his self-control not to collapse. But the priest went down.
The smiling parishioners slowed their approach, but did not stop. Donald pulled the candlestick from the unconscious (dead? Don’t think of that now) priest and swung it wildly at the advancing mob. They danced out of the way of his blows, but they gave him space.
He swung again and they moved back again. With his third swing, he struck the fleshy arm of a middle-aged woman in a floral print dress. He heard the crack of fractured bone, but her expression did not change. She led with her good arm, but did not back up far.
The mob now surrounded him on all sides, but a few more swings gave him an opening out to the aisle. His arms were now aching from the weight of the brass, and a burst of pain traveled up his collarbone with each swing.
He ran up the aisle, still clutching the candlestick tight in his hand. The parishioners tore at his clothes, but were unable to hold him. He pushed through the doors in the back of the chapel.
He stood in the atrium of the cathedral, leaning back against the doors. They were too big and too heavy for him alone to block. He could see no furniture big enough or heavy enough to block the door. He might be able to reach his car if he ran…
At that moment, the cathedral’s front door started to open. He could see a glimpse of another well-dressed parishioner and he ran for the stairwell to the tower. He shut the door to the stairwell behind him, just as two heavyset men in glasses reached it. There was a lock on the door and he turned it. Even so, he could hear the door rattling in its hinges as the parishioners pounded on it.
He ran up the first flight of stairs and looked for a trap door that he could cover the stairs with. There was nothing there.
Who had built this cathedral? What had turned these people into animals? He stood there for a moment, hoping for an answer or a sign. All he could feel was the adrenaline seeping away and burning pain in his arms and shoulders.
He could hear the door below him cracking. He cursed himself, he cursed Megan, he cursed God. He started to run up the stairs.
He was halfway up the tower stairs when the door finally broke. The stairs were wider and higher than a normal step and there was no railing. Donald tripped several times, bruising his shins again and again against the stone. His hands were covered with cuts, where he had caught himself on the edge of a step. His lungs burned and sweat dripped into his eyes. Somehow, he had held onto the candlestick.
He looked below him and saw the mad parishioners. He wanted nothing more than to lie down on the cold stone and wait for them. He kept stumbling up the steps.
When he reached the top, his whole body burned with pain. His leg muscles and his sides ached. His shoulders and arms were on fire with pain from several hairline fractures that any movement worsened. The hand that held the candlestick was bloody and swollen. But he was now ahead of the parishioners. It would take them a good ten minutes to reach him. He had time to prepare.
And do what?
He had bought himself time. But what to do with it?
He searched his thoughts for an idea. He thought back over himself, Megan, the car, the cathedral for something that would explain this madness. Was this punishment for one of his many sins? Had he or Megan awakened something? Was this some symptom of biological warfare?
Or had he left a rational world behind? Was this all that was left?
These thoughts and pain tore at his mind, over and over again. There was nothing to do except to think and feel and wait. The ten minutes were longer than hours.
By the time the parishioners reached him, he was smiling, with reason gone from his eyes. And as they tore him to pieces, his screams no longer sounded human.
And the white cathedral stood on the red raw clay as night fell.
Robby Karol lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife and his dog. He is a graduate of Northwestern University. You can find his other work and links to his short films at his blog: http://geekcornucopia.blogspot.com/
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Story illustration by Dave Felton.