The north and south walls of the church also featured stained-glass windows. Through two of these, toward the altar-end of the nave, came a constant but slightly quivering light, not nearly strong enough to transform the mosaics of somber glass into bright scenes of grace and miracles, but sufficient to reveal that someone had taken refuge in the building.
Earlier, when Molly and Neil had quickly toured the town in search of neighbors gathered in mutual defense, before finding the crowd at the tavern, they’d cruised past St. Perpetua’s. It had appeared to be deserted.
Virgil did not proceed to the front doors of the church. He went to the open gate in the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the adjacent cemetery.
There, the dog exhibited his first moment of trepidation: ears forward, breath held, tail tucked. From rump to stifles to hocks, his back legs trembled.
Yet after only a brief hesitation, the shepherd went through the gate and among the tombstones. Molly, Neil, and the children reluctantly followed.
Two ancient live oaks, growing at maximum altitude and unlikely to have survived higher on the mountain, shadowed the farther reaches of the cemetery. Their massive crowns were for the most part cloaked in the fog, and the aisles of graves under their limbs were obscured by filigrees of blackest shadows worked across a field of purple light.
In those open areas closer to the gate, however, the enduring and anachronistic twilight brightened the yard enough to reveal that some gravestones had been targeted by busy vandals. Simple rectangles of granite, carved angels, two Latin crosses, one cross of Calvary, one Celtic cross, molines and botonées and patriarchals had been toppled and broken.
Graves had been opened. Not most. Perhaps a dozen, fifteen, out of hundreds.
Young Abby sought Molly’s hand and squeezed it tightly.
Masses of mud, excavated earth, covered some areas of grass. Scattered across the mud were coffin lids of all varieties: shattered wood, twisted and mangled metal.
The open graves were nearly full of muddy water. In them floated tangled lengths of satin lining from the caskets. A stained and lace-trimmed pillow on which had once rested the head of a cadaver. One black shoe. Scraps of rotting garments. A few small bones, clean and white, mostly phalanges and metatarsals….
The dog had brought them here to see this.
Molly had no idea why.
Or perhaps she knew the meaning of this outrage, but lacked the nerve to follow logic where it would take her.
THE NARTHEX OF THE CHURCH HAD A SINGLE window: the stained-glass, multifoliate rose above the front doors. When filtered through red-and-gold glass, the plum light lost all ability to illuminate.
This was a dark place, paneled in mahogany. The air smelled sweet with incense and rank with mold.
The dog sneezed twice, and snorted to clear his nose.
Molly’s flashlight found a colony of fungi in a corner, not black and yellow but pure white.
The specimen consisted of two forms growing in an apparently random mix. Round bladderlike structures clustered in many sizes, swollen as if with a barely contained quantity of fluid, glistening with an exuded milky mucus. What appeared to be soft fabric sacs, not quite fully inflated, slowly swelled and subsided and swelled again as though they were lungs.
The colony measured approximately four feet wide, three feet deep, and six feet high. Massive. Malignant. Aware.
How Molly knew it was aware, she could not say, and perhaps she reached this conclusion largely by imagination rather than by reason or even intuition. Yet she remained certain that the interiors of the white bladders, if not the pale lungs, teemed with malevolent and sentient life.
She wished that Abby and Johnny could have waited outside. The kids couldn’t be left alone, however, and neither she nor Neil was ready to compromise their commitment to stay together at all times.
Virgil pawed at the door between the narthex and the nave, pawed with such insistence that he seemed to suggest they had little time to do what must be done.
When Molly pushed the door open, she glimpsed a white marble holy-water font immediately to the right, but was more drawn to the sight of scores of candles clustered at the front of the church, toward the extreme right side of the chancel railing.
By habit, she dipped two fingers in that small marble reservoir. Instead of cool water and the usual sense of peace, she felt a damp, spongy, foul something.
Snatching her fingers back, aiming the flashlight more directly at the font, she discovered a severed human hand lying in the water. Palm up. Digits bristling like the legs of a dead crab.
A cry caught in her throat, then issued as half whimper and half wheeze.
A thing as familiar as a hand, in such unexpected and offensive context, seemed alien in the extreme, less grisly than shocking, but grisly enough.
To spare the children from this sight, Molly at once turned the flashlight away from the font, toward the main aisle of the shadowy nave. Twitching on the wooden floor, the beam revealed her state of mind.
“Stay away from the font, don’t even look at it,” she warned them, and hoped that the poor light would spare them the sight now etched in her memory.
Although fresh, Molly’s recollection of the hand was imperfect. She suspected that something about that severed member had been revelatory, premonitory, but the crucial detail eluded her.
She did not turn back to take a second look. The nave ahead of her compelled attention, for three children and two men were gathered in the light of the many candles in the southwest corner, just outside the sanctuary.
From a distance, the posture of that group of five appeared defensive, fearful. Judging by their tense but passive attitude, they had no guns, and they seemed to expect not a group rather like themselves but storm troopers from another world.
Molly suddenly realized that from the perspective of the five among the candles, she and Neil, and their two charges, were embraced by darkness, their true nature indiscernible. Consequently, as she proceeded along the center aisle, she called out a friendly greeting, identifying herself and her husband.
The five remained silent and still, and stiff with tension. Perhaps their experiences of the night just past had led them to expect deception; their response would depend on the evidence of their own eyes.
The candles, though numerous, did nothing to relieve the gloom in the congregational section of the nave. Likewise, the dim purple daylight at the stained-glass windows failed to unravel a single thread of the tightly woven shadows.
As she followed Virgil along the aisle, Molly heard a low voice murmuring what might have been an Our Father, and a second voice even more softly reciting what sounded like the Hail-Mary rhythms of the Rosary.
She realized that others had taken refuge in St. Perpetua’s, turning to God in this crisis as she had once expected more of the townspeople might have done. These faithful sat singly and in pairs, sat quietly here and there among the pews, humble shapes in the darkness.
She didn’t disturb their prayers and meditations by picking them out with her flashlight, but respected the privacy of their worship and their penance.
As she reached the crossing, that open area between the front row of pews and the chancel railing, a tremor passed underfoot, accompanied by the creak and pop of tongue stressing against groove in the oak planks.
She swept the well-waxed floor around her with the light. A couple of buckled boards, lifting slightly from the subflooring, suggested pressure from below.
Virgil sniffed at them only in passing, making a wide berth around the deformed planks.
The church had a basement. Down there among the supplies and the stored-away holiday decorations, between the furnace and the water heater, perhaps some beast with no Christian purpose had taken up residence.
Every candle in the red glasses on the votive rack was alight. Others, from a box of spares, had been set on the chancel railing and around the base of a life-size statue of the Holy Mother just inside the sanctuary.
In the ruby, gold, and fluctuant radiance, Molly saw that the three children shared freckles, green eyes, and a certain cast of features that identified them as siblings.
The face of the youngest—an auburn-haired girl of perhaps five—glistened with steady, quiet tears. Abby at once took her hand and stood with her, perhaps because they knew each other, or just because she realized that she could lend some courage to the younger girl.
The other children were boys, a pair of identical twins, eight or nine years old. Instead of their sister’s auburn locks, they had dark hair, almost black. While they looked scared, they also appeared to be both tense and restless with that healthy rebellious energy that from time to time animates the best of boys. They wanted to do something, take action, even as they recognized that the resolution of their current hated situation was beyond their power.
Neither of the men with the children appeared to be related to them.
The first, tall and thin, had a prominent Adam’s apple, and a sharp nose. While he chewed on his lower lip almost vigorously enough to draw blood, his hopping-hen eyes pecked nervously at Molly, then at Neil, then at the kids, then at the worshipers in the pews, then toward the dark altar.
The other was shorter, heavy, literally wringing his pudgy hands with anxiety, and earnestly apologetic. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but there was no other way.”
“Sorry about what?” Neil asked.
“We don’t have guns,” the heavy man said. “We hoped you would—and you do. But now I’m wondering—how could guns make a difference?”
“I’m not good at riddles,” Neil said.
“We could have warned you off, but then what would happen to us? So we let you walk into a trap. I’m so sorry.”
Another tremor passed through the floor. The ruby-glass candle holders clinked against the metal votive rack. The flames quivered on the wicks, licked higher, bright tongues in silent screams.
WHATEVER RESTLESS PRESENCE STIRRED IN the church basement, the heavyset man, like his tall companion, appeared to be less interested in the threat under their feet than in the dark chancel behind them and the worshipers in the pews before them. His nervous stare roved from one knot of shadows to another.
“Can you get us out of here?” the tall man asked, as though he had forgotten the location of the doors.
Behind her, Molly heard movement from various points in the church, as if those in the pews had risen in unison, in response to an invitation to Communion.
Turning, she recalled the hand in the holy-water font. Because of the shock of that repulsive contact, she had blanked on a crucial detail, which no longer eluded her. The severed grotesquery had not been that of a man dismembered in the current conflict, for it had been bloated, discolored, pocked with corruption.
The hand had belonged to a man dead and buried for some time. Preserved by the embalmer’s art, it had only gradually succumbed to the process of decay, but it had not weathered the grave unblemished.
One by one, her flashlight picked out ten figures standing among the pews: these sham worshipers, these soulless worm-riddled hulks, in their rotting funeral suits and dresses. Blind behind their sewn-shut eyelids. Deaf to truth, incapable of hope. Resurrected in only a physical sense—and perhaps in a spirit of mockery. Mockery. Travesty. Desecration, profanation.
Here again was that unearthly power that did not differentiate between the living and the dead, or even between the organic and the inorganic. It seemed that Earth was being taken and remade not by ETs from another spiral arm of the Milky Way or from another galaxy, but by beings from another universe, where all the laws of nature were radically different from those in this one.
Humanity’s reality, which operated on Einsteinian laws, and the utterly different reality of humanity’s dispossessors had collided, meshed. At this Einstein intersection, all things seemed possible now in this worst of all possible new worlds.
In rising to their feet, the dead stirred within themselves the gases of decomposition. What had seemed to be the reek of the white fungus grew more pungent and could be identified more accurately.
With a sense of smell at least ten thousand times more acute and more sophisticated than that of any human being, Virgil must have known what had been sitting in those shadowed pews, but he’d sounded no alarm as he had led her past them. He stood now among the five children. His dedication to their rescue exceeded even the most extraordinary canine behavior that Molly had ever seen before, and she was reminded that in some way she couldn’t understand, the dog was more than he seemed to be.
The mortician’s stitches had not in every case held, and one among these nightmare parishioners had both eyes open. The beam of the flashlight did not reveal cataracted or corrupted eyes; instead, the contents of the skull bulged from the sockets—a familiar black fungus spotted with yellow.
As effectively as a leech taking blood, fear suckled on Molly’s hope. As her heart raced once more, however, she took courage, if not comfort, from the fact that these expatriates of the grave frightened her less than the encounter with Render at the tavern.
Another cadaver, short on flesh and long on bone, caged a mass of the black-and-yellow fungus in its open ribs. Another colony wound its right arm, from shoulder to wrist, like an entwining serpent.
The floor of the church shuddered again, planks creaked, planks cracked, as if something below had awakened in hunger, preparing for its hour to devour.
Three candles fell off the communion railing. One extinguished itself, and Neil stamped out the other two.
The dead began to move. They didn’t shamble, didn’t snarl or hiss, didn’t thrash with rage, made none of the standard movie moves. They headed toward the aisles—north, south, central—blocking all the public routes out of the church, stepping slowly but with a strange stately dignity.
To return to the narthex and escape by the front doors, Molly would have to confront at least three of these mock Lazaruses, which she would not—could not—do, especially not when she had the kids to think about, perhaps not even if she’d been alone, not with a pistol, not with a flamethrower.
In sync with his wife’s thoughts, Neil suggested an alternative: “There’s another way. Through the sacristy, out the back door into the rectory yard.”
“That’s no good,” the tall man said in a voice thick with dour certainty.
As if in confirmation, a clatter came out of the sanctuary beyond the communion railing, from the chanceled darkness past the reach of candle glow.
Although she was loath to turn her flashlight away from the ten cadavers in the nave, Molly swung the beam toward the sound. A priest stood at the high altar.
No. Not a priest. The remains of one.
Father Dan Sullivan, who had served this parish for almost three decades, had died in August of the previous year. Now he had returned to the altar, as if the daily rituals of his life were encoded in the cells of his embalmed body, still compelling him to his work.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com