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Fiction, Short Fiction, Horror
by: Stiubhard Og
Everyone in McLean's Halt knew old Churchy wasn't entirely right in the head; that's why they called him 'Mad Churchy'. He wasn't mad in a ranting and raving kind of a way, not like some of those religious nuts that sometimes appeared in town calling down hellfire and damnation and quoting rambling passages from the Bible. Why was it always Jeremiah and Revelations? No - Churchy mumbled and muttered in a strange language that was either his mother tongue (Churchy was 'foreign', but that was all anyone knew and the old man wasn't saying) or else it was some crazy language that he had made up himself. Either way, leaving aside the muttering and the way he never looked anyone directly in the eye, Mad Churchy had been a fixture in the town for more years than most folk could remember. He ran errands, painted houses, swept yards, mended fences and did some odd jobs down at Lannigan's Garage where Big Pat rented him a room over the auto shop for a few dollars a week. "Churchy's my mascot" Pat would often say over a beer or two at The Cattle Drive "That ol' man keeps the auto shop floor cleaner'n my wife's kitchen. As a matter a fact if he weren't madder'n a loon I'd mebbe think on divorcin' Raylene an' marryin' Churchy. …he'd be cheaper to keep an' w'unt try to kill me every few weeks ".
So Churchy muttered and mumbled his way round town, a landmark in his too-big bib and brace dungarees and his battered Texas Rangers baseball cap, and if anyone had noticed that perhaps his conversations with himself had become a little more animated - well, Lord knew everyone was suffering from the heat. Summers in the Texas Panhandle were normally hot without being unbearable , with temperatures peaking around 80 Fahrenheit, but this year the temperature had rocketed into the mid nineties in the third week of June and had stubbornly stayed there for six long, oppressive weeks as the plains baked and people got hotter and more bad tempered. JT Sumner, who sold and repaired air conditioning units, joked with his buddies round the pool table in The Cattle Drive that the weather was "heaven-sent for JT Sumner and the Coca-Cola Corporation. Ah'm tellin' ya boys, this here's what ah call Cadillac weather …'cause another week or two of it an' tha's what ole JT will be drivin' next".
Churchy suffered in the heat like anyone else of course, but only he knew that the reason he had taken to saying his rosary to himself in the language of his youth with even more urgency and concentration was the way this weather had affected the demons. He had realised years ago that only he saw them, or maybe only he saw them for what they were, but by and large they left him alone. Every street had them, but not every house, although some houses had two or three or more. They played in the gardens, ran up and down the sidewalks and mostly left Old Churchy alone …except sometimes when he was trying to paint some shingles or mow a lawn and then one or two of the little creatures might caper behind him and make fun in their high demonic voices. At such times he would just concentrate a little more on the task at hand and recite his rosary with a bit more fervour, and the creatures would eventually get bored and leave him alone. For the fifty years that he had lived in McLean's Halt Churchy had ignored the little hell fiends and lived quietly alone, harming no one, but as the heat had built up in the Texas plains, and the long weeks had dragged on ,the demons had become more and more active. They screamed and cried in the streets, fought amongst themselves and often taunted the old man. This morning four of the imps had followed him the whole length of Austin Street, singing and catcalling and mocking his devotions until he practically had to break into a run to escape them.
It was getting so a god-fearing man couldn't go about his daily life.
The old man climbed the wooden stairs to his room above the auto shop and opened the door to his sanctuary with a palpable feeling of relief. The room had once been a store, and so there was no window to give any reprieve from the heat that had built up inside. There was just a dirty skylight in the roof through which the late afternoon sun was slowly ebbing as the Panhandle moved into evening and the sky darkened and coloured like a bruise. Inside the room one corner was taken up with a deep enamel sink and a small cupboard above for crockery. The furniture consisted of just a bed, a foldaway table and a straight-backed kitchen chair. An old portable television sat on a metal footlocker at the bottom of the bed. On the wall hung two framed photographs, one of Pope John Paul II and one a monochrome image of a handsome young man, a soldier smiling proudly in the uniform of the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. A single wooden shelf on the opposite wall held a small plaster statue of Our Lady of Czestochowa and another of Saint Stanislaw of Cracow. Churchy sat slowly and wearily on the edge of his bed and looked at the two holy icons. He sighed heavily. The room was like an oven with no window to provide ventilation, just a dirty skylight in the ceiling through which the sky could be seen as it turned blue-purple. "Oh dose demons," he said aloud in his heavily accented English "vat dey do next? Vy dey not let an old man alone?" In the pregnant, stifling silence that followed Saint Stanislaw turned his plaster head. The face of the old man on the bed lit up in a smile of wonderment and awe as the halo of Our Lady blazed out with a golden light that lit up every corner of the small room while Saint Stanislaw said, in beautiful fluent Polish, "Jerzy, you have suffered long enough".
* * *
Billy Oakes was seven years old. He and Emmet McGruder had gone to the Junior School playground to play stickball because they didn't have the money to pay into the Lido where the water provided some respite from the heat. Emmet didn't really mind so much because his swimming style was still just a modified dog paddle, but Billy could swim like an eel and loved to dive in at the deep end of the open-air pool, gliding along the tiled bottom in the cool green silence.
There were no other boys in the playground, just Maria Porras from Miss Gunther's class and two of her drippy friends, which kinda put paid to the stickball idea. That was why Billy was hopscotching while Emmet sat in the shade of the school gym and watched the girls hang upside down from the climbing frame. One foot seven …eight, nine turn …hop back to seven …pause. A large and beautiful butterfly sat plumb in the centre of the foursquare, its wings spread to the sun. Billy stood awkwardly on one leg, shuffling slightly to maintain his balance, unsure of what to do next. Emmet had closed his eyes and rested his head against the brickwork of the gym wall, unaware of Billy's minor dilemma. Billy looked again at the large wings of the butterfly, veined and mottled from dark green to black and with a sheen in the sunlight, just like some of the fancy rocks he had seen in the museum in Abilene that his class had visited last year. They gave a slight tremor, as if feeling the pressure of the boy's scrutiny, but the creature remained obstinately rooted to the middle of the hopscotch square. Billy decided …he would clap loudly and scare the insect into flight. He drew back his hands, still managing to stay balanced on his left leg. As the boy brought his arms arching towards each other the butterfly also brought its wings together as if in imitation. Then three things happened at once. At the very instant that the butterfly's wings touched and the hot palms of Billy's hands met the hollow tip of a .22 rifle round, fired from the top of the water tower just over one hundred yards away and travelling at 1100 feet per second struck him just above the left eyebrow. The spray of blood, bones and brain that blew from the back of Billy's head covered the shaded brick of the school gym and the face of the half dozing Emmet McGruder. Emmet opened his eyes with a jerk and in that half second of confusion, while he puzzled what the warm viscous coating on his face was and why Billy Oakes was lying twitching his legs on the hopscotch court, the twin of the bullet that had killed his companion struck Emmet in the throat, mangling the flesh, rupturing the carotid artery and slamming his head back against the wall. Maria Porras's friend Rosa died still hanging upside down from the climbing frame before Maria and eight year old Julianna Lopez ran screaming. Fate, instinct or blind luck allowed them to run in the right direction to take them out of the unseen gunman's range and line of fire.
* * *
In the reading room of the British Library, one Saturday evening at 6 pm, Mary Delaney thought she was going to die. The pain that she felt above her left eye was so sudden and so searing that she let out a loud, involuntary gasp, that caused more than one head to raise. As soon as it had come it was gone again, leaving her shaken. More than what she used to call 'an ice-cream headache' and more than what her Scottish granny used to call 'a stooner', the pain that she had experienced for a fraction of a fraction of a second had been complete, blinding and debilitating. Mary sat for a second, consciously controlling her breathing and running a check on her physical and mental state. The panic was gone, but she was shaking. As she breathed in through her nose she felt a familiar coppery taste at the back of her throat. She rubbed the heel of her hand across her nostril and saw the slight, tell -tale, smear before she looked down at the volume she had been studying to see where the single drop of bright blood had fallen onto the beautifully coloured plate of the Aztec goddess Itzpapalotl. The legend read 'Itzpapalotl - The Obsidian Butterfly - beautiful, demonic, armed with the claws of a Jaguar. She is the female counterpart of Itzcoliuhqui, the God of Darkness and Destruction. Blinded and cast down from the heavens, Itzcoliuhqui strikes out randomly at his victims. Itzpapalotl demands blood sacrifice.'
"Looks like you've got it, bitch".
Mary stood without closing the book and walked away from the library, away from her paper on the Religions of Pre-Columbian Mexico - perhaps forever. She knew now, somehow but certainly, that she wasn't going to die just yet, but she had no idea what she was going to do. 'Perhaps' she thought 'I'll drive to the sea'. She had a strong desire to swim.
Outside the library the streets of London were hot and humid. The traffic noise and the sense of a wave of humanity hit her as soon as she walked through the door. Like ants on a hill she thought. She decided to walk through Regent's Park and catch the train at Baker Street, just to get away from the clamour, to find some respite.
The park was filled with strolling tourists, courting couples and a few people lying on blankets enjoying the warmth of the late sun. Ahead, on the path that cut past the tennis courts from Chester Road to York Bridge she could see an elderly man, scant grey hair and a shabby black overcoat in spite of the summer heat. He was berating the people on the path, but seemed non-threatening, a ranter not a violent type. As Mary drew closer she could make out some of his tirade "…. and as it says in Corinthians 'Ye cannot drink of the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers at the Lord's table and of the table of devils' …and they are here, oh yes they are here …for it says in the Book of Revelations 'Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of DEVILS, and the hold of every foul spirit' …" A religious nut then. Usually harmless, but just to be sure Mary crossed to the side of the path furthest from the man. She knew she really shouldn't, but as she passed she risked a glance in his direction. She was glad that he seemed intent on not looking anyone directly in the eye.
"And as Matthew tells us" he boomed "our Lord told the Pharisees after he had cured a man who was dumb and blind "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you."
"Cast out devils "A new young voice had joined in enthusiastically.
Mary glanced back and smiled to see that the park prophet had attracted his own little band of disciples; a young boy and girl, perhaps five years old. They were blond and beautiful and dressed to emphasize the fact that they were twins. A third child, a little of girl of perhaps three, equally as cute and perfect as her siblings, held on to her big brother's hand and was jumping up and down vigorously and appreciatively.
"Cast out devils" The boy shouted again, puffing out his chest and lowering his chin in what he obviously thought was a demonstration of authority.
"Ebbils! Ebbils!" The little one shouted, jumping up and down again so that her blond ringlets bounced.
"Yes, Ebbils" the boy laughed, delighted with new word his little sister had created.
"Cast out the Ebbils, cast out the Ebbils". It became a chant, taken up by his twin, and then the cadence to a march as they began to circle the shabby prophet. The three of them delighting in their new game, pacing determinedly around the man as if here was a maypole.
Mary began to laugh. The three picture perfect children had, by their fearless mimicry, made the situation comical. It's funny, she thought, how the mind of child can sometimes put things into perspective. And then she saw the look of sheer terror on the shabby man's face. She thought she had never seen a human being so obviously and completely frightened in her life. All natural color seemed to have drained from the poor man's face. He was ashen, his face covered in a sheen of sweat, and the way his eyes were rolling in their sockets reminded Mary of a terrified horse. The man had been completely transfixed by terror, a complete and primal animal terror, and the cause of that visceral dread was the three beautiful children skipping round him. Mary didn't know what to do. She didn't know whether to fear for the children or for the pathetic black coated figure.
"James! Molly! Come here this instant! And bring Sarah with you."
A young woman stood some distance away holding the handle of an empty child's buggy. Mary saw the look of annoyance on the woman's face. She caught Mary's eye and smiled quickly, nervously apologetic.
"James! Molly! NOW!"
The trio traipsed obediently back; seemingly oblivious of the terror they had visited on the object of their game. Mary doubted if the young woman was aware of the effect her children had wrought, she just seemed to be annoyed and embarrassed that they had made fun of the stranger.
"Leave that poor man alone" she scolded the elder pair as she fastened the straps, consigning the youngest to the buggy.
"But Mum, we were helping him with the Ebbils" James replied, as Molly giggled.
The young woman straightened and stepped to the back off the buggy, began to push it along the path, not looking at the spot where the now silent man still stood. The twins fell in on either side of their young sister's buggy, like an escort, each holding onto a curved chrome downsweep of the handle. As she passed Mary she smiled again, an apology for her errant offspring.
"Honestly" she said as she pushed the buggy past "sometimes they can be proper little imps."
James and Molly looked back and smiled too. Smiles that were too old for five year old faces.