“Look, Evan, that’s just the way it is: you can’t be a vegan goth and wear leather. Anne-Marie will have a spazzfit if you show up in a dead cow. You do know leather comes from cows, right? I remember our talk about pigs.…”
“You’re never letting me live that down, are you?” he muttered. Evan and I have been off-and-on friends for years. We drifted apart over music, united later by goth. It’s probably not meant for that, but movements that can’t move don’t. I went all dark and red lips, he was for black and white, face-paint and everything, as much because he made him look like a starving vampire as because it made his father twitch and question his son’s sexuality. It didn’t make my parents give any less of a shit about me. But I tried.
“I could go for fake leather,” he snapped as he vaulted the fence to the cemetery.
I wasn’t near as graceful over, but landed quiet enough behind him. Everyone knew the old Hillborough Cemetery had a guard, but aside from Halloween old Warren mostly spent his time cleaning it up during the day and deep into booze at night. Amanda told me once I was into goth because it helped hide curves; the worst about about a bitch is when they’re not all wrong. Not that I’d ever tell her.
“Fake leather is glorifying the death of animals,” I said, quoting one of the videos Anne-Marie had brought to class once. A third of the way through the one about spider chickens, a third of the class had thrown up. By the halfway point everyone had been asking about sequels and comparing it to the Saw movies. Not what she’d had in mind. It’s hard to be revolutionary in a world of assholes.
Evan pulled out a flashlight, shone it about and began picking his way toward the old church. It hadn’t seen use in fifteen years, ever since a storm collapsed half the roof and it was cheaper to build a new one than fix it. Tradition comes with a price tag, as the local paper had pointed out. We had to read it in politics class, probably to put us off of reading a newspaper ever again.
I picked my way behind him, glad I’d worn shoes. “What are we doing here?”
“The church is said to be haunted.”
“It’s a church, not a haunted house. Who’d haunt that?”
“Pissed-off altar boys?”
He had a point. “And you learned about this where?”
“The internet.” He added nothing else. I wondered if it was on usenet but didn’t push: my friends didn’t know I was any kind of geek and I wasn’t about to let them.
“Fine.” I walked up beside him and toward the church. “What happens if it’s a bad ghost?”
“We lay it to rest, of course.”
“You brought stuff for that?”
“You don’t need stuff, just kindness. You can do that, right?”
The church entrance wasn’t engulfed in weeds, which at least meant someone was keeping it clean. It was one of the large domed affairs with holes where stained-glass windows had once been, giving it the appearance of a large gaping eyes. The kind of place designed to glorify God and make people seem like shit, but even now it boasted a sturdy padlock and chains over the front door.
“Check for a back door,” Evan said as he walked up to it. I bit back a rude word and wandered behind the building.
I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t about to tell anyone – not even Evan – that the reason was that the monster in my closest was scarier than some empty church. I was way too old to believe or be scared by it, but the memory had never gone away. The back door was locked as well, though the padlock was less impressive-looking. I gave it a tug, the shrugged and headed around the side to find a side entrance devoid of padlock or lock at all.
Nothing. I wasn’t about to shout and alert Warren that we were here: drunk or not, he could still call the cops. I shoved the door open and walked inside, a little disappointed when it didn’t squeal like a stuck pig like they did in movies.
Inside the door was a run-down old kitchen: everything useful and not bolted down had long ago been salvaged to leave behind old appliances and range hoods. No animals, which was kind of odd, but there was enough moonlight through broken windows and the ruins of the roof to make my way into the church proper.
There was a nun in the church. A real one, all black and white habit, kneeling down to pray at the altar: it hadn’t been moved out, partly because a roof beam had been fallen on it and because people said altars shouldn’t be moved, that they belonged to the church they were built for. She was kneeling, silent, in a patch of weak-ass moonlight.
“The church is closed,” she said without looking back.
“We were curious.” I said, walking forward. “We didn’t think anyone’d be here, let alone praying.”
She stood and turned. She was thin and old, tired-looking and worn out. “What is a church for if not praying?”
“Waiting for the service to be over,” I said, matching her tone. I’d never liked going to church at all: far as I could tell it was all about men oppressing women and kids and adults using any excuse they could to justifying being assholes. And it had taken the best excuse for getting knocked up and given it to Mary: hard to repeat that one.
“Yes. They did that so often,” she said, and something about her voice gave me goosebumps. “The power they gave me was never enough for a miracle that could last and not a one dared truly believe. They might have, had you not come here. Had you not taken so much from me.”
“What?” I said.
She stepped forward. I’d never seen a nun move so fast, but she was in front of me before I could blink, her eyes so kind it was somehow cruel as she reached out a hand and dropped it. “You don’t know. O, child. I cannot place this burden on you in good conscience, no matter that you are my death.”
I took stumbling steps backward in the direction of get-the-fuck-away. I couldn’t see any medicaid bracelet but she was clearly a few bricks short of anything. She didn’t move, and I spun and bolted out back through the side door before she went crazy-nuts for my eyes or something. I spun back once outside and –
– there wasn’t a door. Just a wall. I stepped forward. Hit it. Hit it again. Swore. Walked to the front of the church pretty much on autopilot.
Evan had the door open, the padlock open on the ground, his left hand wrapped up in a bloody bandage. I wanted to ask why he’d brought a bandage, how he’d cut himself, but nothing would come out.
I don’t know what he saw in my face, but he pushed the door open quickly and glared into the church as if daring anyone to be inside. It was empty. No nun to be seen, just the remains of the altar and broken pews. We walked forward as he played his flashlight around with a scowl. “Empty.”
“Yeah.” I walked past the altar, turned to check the way I’d ran. A kitchen, but its door connected it to the back. No side door, on easy access to the altar. No dust. I started, walked back into the main church and ran my fingers over the floor, pews, even the altar.
“No dust,” I said. “Shouldn’t churches have dust?”
“Wind,” Evan said curtly.
I said nothing to that and walked back outside, thinking about miracles people couldn’t believe and lies brains tell us until the world seemed sane and solid. It took time, but I figured a few drinks would help.
We never talked about that night after, not even once.
And we never went out looking for a haunted house again.