Midnight At St. Mary's

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Cinders floated in the air, barely breaking the cloak of midnight. They appeared in my headlights and disappeared into the darkness around me. An old, battered sign leaned over marked “Main road ends”. In Marysville, Washington only the main road directs around the town. The other back roads have half-mile markers, occasional trees, and stretches of wild bush easily confused at any time of day. I rolled down the window, inhaling the slight tinge of smoke. I listened for sirens, but only an owl hooted in the distance. The radio remained silent, and a quick double-take in the rearview mirror confirmed I was the only one driving in this direction. A fork in the road appeared. My heart skipped a beat, tempted to go home after a twelve-hour shift. But the twisting in my stomach convinced me not to go. I continued driving into the falling ashes towards the only building for miles. A praying Mary statue stood to the side of the deserted parking lot.

“Still not too late to turn back,” I said exiting the vehicle.

In the reflection of the glass, my badge gleamed, “Sheriff Nix”. I adjusted my sheriff’s hat and looked over my uniform. Spotless. The way I kept it for twenty years. Although now, I filled in the clothes differently. A hundred and ten extra pounds caused the shirt to fit tightly and gave trouble to button the stomach area. The belt helped to keep my pants up but made it harder to breathe if I wore it too high on my waist. I took a moment to reevaluate how far I’d go to uphold my position as sheriff. More than that, did I dare to question God? My mama had always been a firm believer, even when my dad took to drinking and started beating on her. She stayed faithful until the day she died and hopefully, she’s in a better place now. What would she think of me snooping around holy grounds under the pretense of my suspicion?

My boot landed in a thick pile of soot. Maybe I was being led there. Perhaps I stumbled upon my higher calling- to expose frauds milking people of hard-earned dollars telling them their sins will be forgiven.

Unsure of who, or what I might stumble upon, I silenced my radio and scouted in the dark. I crept around the edge of the building. Paint chips fell away under my fingertips. Cement from the bricks crumbled, and I noticed parts of the foundation were rotten. I never claimed to be a religious man, holier, or better than anyone else by any means. But I had a code I lived by to do right by people and my community. Didn’t they have a code too? My hand reached the corner of the back wall, I gripped it and slowly peered around.

Behind the factitious face of crosses, and a larger-than-life statue of Mary holding sweet baby Jesus, I found the fire. Five hooded figures surrounded the flames. A man in red holding a cross and prayer beads began chanting. It appeared to be the town priest and his clergymen.

“Guide us, Lord! Give us your strength! Empower us as we offer these sacrifices to you!” The priest’s volume increased with every word.

The clergymen threw unidentified objects into the fire.

“And now we pray!” He stretched both hands into the air and they bowed their heads repeating a prayer in a foreign language.

While their eyes were closed, I snuck closer to get a better look. My palms covered my nose and mouth from the acidic reek of burning hair. The stench of charred flesh stung my eyes and made me gag. Were they burning a body or an animal? What sort of ritual is this? Is the town priest an occultist? I couldn’t see anything in the fire, but I had a feeling inside. Something sinister happened here and I only caught the tail end of it.

Trembling, I backed away and fought the urge to throw up. Years of experience told me to stay calm. There’s a logical explanation for everything. If a body went into the fire, I had to find evidence to prove it. I came around to the front of the building, examining the lawn for clues. There were no footprints or signs of a struggle. I did not find any personal items fallen to the wayside. Despite the lack of evidence, my instinct said not to leave yet. I needed to search elsewhere.

The massive church doors creaked open to an empty sanctuary. A red carpet led down the aisle to a huge altar divided into levels. The wooden benches stood in rows on both sides of the carpet. Moonlight illuminated the sanctuary in colors of rose and amber through the decorated glass. Could such a beautiful place truly harbor a great evil?

I searched around with my flashlight. There was a door to my left behind the seat of the organ which I supposed led to some sort of storage room for musical equipment. A jangle on the handle proved me right. High arches formed the ceiling above my head. If any explanation for the ritualistic fire was there, I had no way to reach it.

Recounting the events, I noted they were burning something that smelled human. However, the lawn was clear of blood, hair fibers, and pieces of clothing. Inside the church also did not raise any alarms.

Nothing pointed to murder and occultism isn’t a crime. I was ready to pack it up and go home when lo and behold Christ himself spoke to me. The moon had risen to the perfect position behind a window painted of Christ to reflect on a key. It was sitting on a hymnal on a bench. I tried to open every door I could find. All the doors on the second floor were already unlocked to the Sunday school classrooms. The key unlocked one door that revealed a set of stairs spiraling into the basement. They descended deep below the earth and with each step my resolve grew. Something they didn’t want anyone to find was down here. 

A single candle-lit lamp hung over a baptismal font. The marble font, three feet high and about three feet wide, had sides carved with artistic detailing. Its opening took the shape of an octagon. The stench of rot made it hard to stand around. I turned to leave but a whimper stopped me cold. I should call for backup or come back during the day. Roaming around the church at night is a bad idea. Another whimper came, a meek and defenseless sound. The whimper sounded again and the third time, it sounded human. I angled my flashlight into the font. Inside of it was a girl, no older than seven or eight. She squinted at the beam from the flashlight. Her collar bones, shoulder joints, and elbows poked through her pale skin. Disembodied arms and chewed-through legs piled beneath her. Maggots and worms writhed in the decomposing flesh. Bite marks were all over her with open wounds from missing chunks of flesh.

“They’re eating us,” she whispered.

I swallowed hard and put my arm in. She pulled away recoiling like a snake. 

“They’re coming back with more children. There used to be three of us. They ate the other two and left me in here with their bodies. Please, you have to help me.”

“Let me take you out of here.”

She shook her head no, avoiding eye contact with me. 

“They know where I live. They will try to get me again. My family comes to this church.” She started crying.

“No. No. Let me get you out. We will protect you, and your family.” I tried again to grab hold of her, but she squeezed against the dead limbs.

“Tomorrow. There will be another ritual tomorrow. Please come back tomorrow and bring help.” She pleaded with me to listen to her.

“You may not be here tomorrow. I’m taking you out of here now.”

I leaned over and grabbed her out of the pit.

She started screaming, “Stop! No! Let me go!”

“Calm down. You have to keep quiet, or they will hear you.”

“Let me go! Put me down!” She started to struggle and pull away.

“I’m trying to save you!” 

“Help! Help!”

“Stop screaming! Keep still!” She thrashed about, hitting me, and trying to kick me. I stumbled a few times trying to carry her up the stairs.  

When I got to the top of the stairway the clergymen were lined up waiting.

“What do you think you’re doing?” The man removed his red hood, and the other men followed. The priest’s head was bald except for a few grey wisps from ear to ear. The wrinkles in his face deepened when he frowned at me.

“I’m saving this little girl. I don’t know what kind of crazy, messed up things you have going on here, but she is leaving with me.”

“Sheriff Nix, I’d advise you not to do that.”

“Well just go ahead and excuse the hell out of me then. How do you explain the human parts in the basement? This girl with bite marks all over her? What kind of animals are you people? Eating children.”

He was repulsed at my accusations. “We are not eating anyone. That girl is a monster! We are trying to exorcise a cannibalistic demon out of her. It would be unsafe for you to take her away from here.”

“I’ve been doing this job for twenty years Reverend. Are you going to tell me how to do my job? You rather me let you keep her starving and holed up in a basement?”

He moved closer and held out his arm to take her away. I pulled out my gun. Seeing the gun made the girl freeze in fear.

“Not another step. Not another word. Now you all are going to back away and let me leave with her.”

They backed away with their hands up. I passed by them and walked out the church. Exhaustion started to take over me as the adrenaline from searching the church wore off. I decided to go home, and get the girl help in the morning.

“What’s your name?” I asked while leading her into the living room and preparing a bed on the couch.

No response. I tried asking if she was hungry or wanted to shower but she did not reply.

“Just forget it.” I shook my head. She rolled over and shut her eyes tight. I watched her fall asleep then tucked her in.

Normally, I can sleep through anything, it’s part of the job. You have to be strong and see things a man should never see, and still, be able to rest. With the girl around I stayed alert. All the guns were secured, and the doors locked. I kept the lights off except for a lamp next to the couch. The door to my bedroom stayed open providing a clear view of the living room. I gave an eye on her every now and then. I remember accidentally falling asleep then at some point, the floors were creaking. The floorboards always moaned and ground. Some noisy wood wasn’t odd. But, after the creaking, I heard scarping. That was unusual. It continued like that for a while.

Creeeaak. Scrape, scrape.

Creaaaak. Scrape, scrape.

I flung the covers off, ready to find out what in tarnation was going on. A shadowy figure stood in the hall.

“Girl, is that you?” I called out. “Girl!”

The silhouette turned and walked towards the living room. In the light of the lamp, I could see the little girl. She sat down without taking her eyes off me. We stayed that way, staring each other down like a cat and a mouse. About an hour later, she gave up curling into a fetus under the covers. Fatigue took over me and my head hit the pillow. Between dreaming of darkness and red, I heard a hollow boom, boom, boom going up the drywall. I rolled over and the pounding stopped. Some moments passed and the climbing resumed.

A drop of water hit my forehead. Goosebumps grew on my arm. My eyes wouldn’t open. I thrashed around in the bed. A weight pressed down on me and life sprung back into my body. I shot up. I found myself looking into the whites of a pair of eyes.

“They’re eating us,” it whispered. Slowly its mouth opened wide. I froze as the mouth grew larger until it regurgitated a toe onto my lap.

“Aaahh!” I screamed. Pushed it off me and threw the toe.

It leaped back at me. I recognized the small hands aiming for my face. I caught hold of them and wrestled with her.

“Get off me! Stop!” I shouted. “Stop! What are you doing?”

Razor-sharp teeth kept coming at me, then went for my ear.

“Aaaaggghhhh!” I screamed and flung her off the bed.

She chewed on the piece of my ear and licked her fingers.

Blood ran down my face onto the sheets. She rose on all fours, getting ready to pounce again. I had a gun on the bedside table. I grabbed the weapon and shot at the floor to scare her. She backed away and I used handcuffs and chained her to the foot of the bed.

In the morning, the toes on her right foot were chewed clean off. She could barely walk, and I had to carry her into the police station. After a psych evaluation the state had her committed. I set out to visit her days after that. The psych ward had her in solitary confinement for attacking the nurses and trying to eat them. One week later, on a Monday morning, my phone rang.

“This is Sheriff Nix.”

“Sheriff Nix, this is Darcy from Marysville State Asylum. I’m calling to let you know the girl you brought in here died. She refused to eat anything other than human flesh. The hunger got the better of her and she ate her own organs.”

“I…” I started to reply then stopped. Neither of us knew what to say next. I listened to her breathing into the phone until the line disconnected.

On Tuesday, her DNA report came back. The girl had no brothers or sisters or any surviving relatives for that matter. Wednesday afternoon was warm, a record high day for the spring, with sunshine beating the asphalt. I sat in the rush hour traffic going over questions in my mind. Then I ran up the stairs of St. Mary’s Catholic church and busted into the priest’s office. He stood by a window overlooking the rear of the church.

“She’s dead! She ate herself alive!”

“It’s finally over.” He fell to his knees crying and bowing to the floor repeatedly.  

I yanked him off the ground by the neck of his robe. “Who was she? Why was she here? Where did she come from?”

He laughed and shook his head, “Now the demon is dead and maybe we will be free from our curse!”

A red bite mark became visible as his head turned side to side.

“This is how we started eating people.” He said, pointing to the mark.

Church Windows

Arturo, M.

I love the clarity of the story, was captivated to read on...

William, S.

I love your story and writing style...long and short of it, I love the twist. I would like to see a compelling reason the sheriff doesn't take action when he first encounters the priest or when he takes the little girl.

Loreen, D

I'm going to think twice next time I drive to Marysville.

Cathy, M

Oh my, had me on the edge of my seat!

Trudie, C.

Overall, it's a pretty good first draft.