June 15th, 2011

When everything went to Hell, people started finding out fascinating things — among them, that the mythic creatures from the late-night movie screens in their childhood minds were no myths.

Vampires existed, zombies, werebeasts, ghouls . . . but they were much worse than you thought, because they came straight up out of Hell itself. Their minds had festered for centuries, creating new ways to exercise their revenge on the upright, the unblemished, and all of those free from torments.

The other ones, those that had been on Earth all along, paled by comparison. They were quite real, the werewolves of Transylvania and the night terrors of the Adirondacks. But those monsters were to the beasts of Hell as a tomcat was to a tiger.

Sheila was finding that out anew with each passing minute. She had been running so long through the woods, and her body was so poisoned with adrenaline and fear, that she no longer remembered when it had begun. As dusk fell, the creatures behind her seemed to be always closing the distance on her, sometimes even coming into view for brief moments, yet never quite overtaking her. This was part of their game of cat and mouse.

Her lungs and legs cried out for rest, but she would not stop. She was not tempted to think that it would be better to give up and let the beasts overtake her. What came next would not be better. She had seen it.

She crashed through a gap in the trees and saw a Gothic church, surrounded by the same wood she was in, but on the other side of a creek that formed almost a ravine. Plunging down the hill, she wondered if she could out-climb the creatures following her — and wondered even more if the rumors she had heard about old churches were true.

At one point, having forded the creek and climbed halfway up the other side, a wolfish, scaly thing the color of burgundy closed within twenty feet of her. Even an office-dweller with soft hands like her, who had never been in a fight in her life, saw how to use her elevated position to advantage: rocks thrown in the creature’s face and a standing dead tree levered down the hill onto its head bought her the time to reach the door to the north transept of the church.

She slammed the door behind her, surveyed the rubble inside the place, and started dragging a toppled pew over to the door to block it. Before she had dragged it five feet, she heard panting outside, from at least two creatures. Yet they did not even scratch at the door.

The rumor was that churches — old ones, imbued with centuries of faith by devoted believers — were havens against the invaders. She hoped it was not another urban legend, like the tale of the great black swordsman who had liberated Madrid (or had it been Barcelona?) from the forces of Hell. The fact that the beasts would not even touch the building gave her hope.

She walked to the center of the church and sagged onto a pew. The river of adrenaline that had coursed through her had left her feeling nauseated and weak. Her legs shook even though she sat still. She worked to calm her breathing as she looked overhead to the stained-glass windows. Only the highest of them still caught any daylight; they cast a faint orange glow, like a distant campfire. It was silent outside except for the rooting and snorting of the beasts. She could hear one scrabbling through the bushes on the south side of the church.

And then they began to howl — first one, then two, then all of them. She was surrounded.

Electricity had been out in this part of the country for weeks. When she first started running, she carried a battery-powered lamp with her. But it had long ago given out. At one gathering of survivors, a kindly man too injured to carry on had given her a hand-cranked lamp that did not need batteries, but she had lost it during her flight through the woods. Soon the church would be sunk into total darkness.

Sheila forced herself to stand up and take an inventory. In the waning daylight she had seen that much of the church furniture was intact. Looters had quickly lost interest even in unguarded valuables when they figured out how dire their own situation was. She patted her pockets: whistle, folding knife, compass, nail clippers, and — ridiculously, she thought — a travel-size packet of tissues. Come to think of it, the compass was ridiculous, too, unless it stopped pointing north and started pointed toward safety.

She felt her way along the aisle, tripping on a microphone stand that seemed out of place among the original Gothic appointments of the church. At the altar, she put her hand on the cold silver of the candlestick that had gleamed in the dying embers of the day. She hung her head, leaned on the altar with both hands, and wondered if it was true that silver repelled the undead.

Her hand came to rest on something on the altar, a tiny box . . . a box of matches. Shaking, she opened it halfway and felt inside to count them. Three. Her hand sought out the candlestick and snaked up it to find a candle only partially burned.

Taking deep breaths to steady herself, she lit a match and lit the candle on the first try. One candlepower was enough to show her that the sanctuary had many more candles after this one.

She walked around the sanctuary, picking up hymnbooks, the microphone stand, and other debris to clear the aisles. She had not been in a church since she was a little girl.

As she passed near the north transept where she had entered the church, she heard something: a low whimper. She heard it again. Then she heard a faint but unmistakable scratching on the wood of the door.

She went back to the front of the church and sat in the pew nearest the altar. She looked up at the candle burning steadily on the silver candlestick. Wax slid silently down its side, almost in reflection of the tears that slid down her face.

She wondered if it was too late to start praying.

Photo by Amy Palko.

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