Authors: Brian Martinez
by Brian Martinez
Copyright © 2014 Bloodstream City Press
For the misfits.
Chapter One : Deep as Hell
Franklin Butcher puts the metal to his mouth. It's cold on his lips, and it reminds him of playgrounds as a kid; afternoons spent laughing in the sun, beautifully ignorant of the years to come; the love and the lust and the loss just down the road. He thinks now of adulthood as a feral cat, sneaking up slow and silent at first, until a screaming flash of claws and fangs digs into the neck to finish the job. It's been a rough chain of years, and he feels it in his bones.
He tilts the flask and takes a heavy pull of whiskey. It warms his gut enough to steel him against the damp air of a cold, autumn morning. As he screws the cap back on, he takes in the view through the dusty windshield.
The modest church is in such need of fresh paint the wood looks thirsty, while the lot it sticks up from like a bad tooth is more weeds than blacktop, even up close where Butcher is parked. The small, free-standing garage off to its right is all but ready to collapse into a pile of tinder.
Butcher hasn't been in Shallow Creek long, yet the stories he's heard of the church, and of Father Curtis who runs it alone, could already fill a notebook. How at its height Father Curtis' sermons were so popular, local folks would bring their own chairs to sit outside the door and listen in, even in the rain. How he once developed a deep infatuation for a beautiful trapeze artist who passed through town. How he burnt up Mister Reed's crops one summer because he claimed they hid the devil in them. How his congregation has dwindled so low, no one knows why he bothers to keep the church running anymore, except as a tax shelter.
Officer Butcher stashes the flask in the glove compartment, grabs his hat and steps out of the cruiser. He adjusts the gun on his hip as he enters the tiny church.
It takes a moment for Butcher's eyes to adjust to the dark interior of the church, but even with limited vision, one thing is clear: there's a body on the floor.
Beneath the cross with the pale, bloody Jesus nailed to its beams, a figure in dark robes is splayed out on the floor. By instinct, Butcher's hand goes to his hip to feel for the butt of his gun. Before he can unclasp the holster, the body stands.
Father Curtis makes the sign of the cross and turns to Butcher. Bushy, snow white eyebrows raise on his wrinkled forehead. “You're too young to be divorced.”
Officer Butcher tilts his hat up on his head. “Word travels, I see.”
“In a town like this it’s the only thing that does." He closes the distance between them. "If you don’t mind me asking, why is it you and your wife separated?”
Butcher clears his throat. “You called the police?”
The old man smiles, sheepish. “I'm sorry, my son, I have a curious mind and it gets me into trouble. People normally share so much of themselves with me. At least they used to.” He gestures to the empty church.
Butcher leans against a pew, his legs suddenly tired, and lets out a lungful of air that smells of booze- a fact which doesn’t go unnoticed by Father Curtis. “I guess you could say we had a difference of opinion. She thought I was a delusional, stubborn fool who would never change.”
“I thought she could learn to live with it.”
“You’re a better man than you give yourself credit for, my son. Many men are.”
“With all due respect, you don’t know me.”
The old man shrugs his boney shoulders. “You meet enough sinners, you learn to know when you haven’t.”
“Yeah, well divorce is a sin last I checked.”
“True, but perhaps I believe the greater sin is wasting the life that was given to you. After all, there are more worthwhile fights in this world than whose turn it is to take out the garbage.”
“It wasn't all as simple as that.”
“No." He pauses. "Sometimes it was the dishes.”
The father wheezes, a sound Butcher realizes is what the old man has in the way of a laugh. “I like you,” Father Curtis nods, “I'm glad you were brought here.”
Butcher gives him a look.
“By the Lord, of course.”
“Of course. Listen, I don't want to be rude but you still haven't explained what you called for. Dispatch said it was property damage but you weren't clear on the phone. Was the church vandalized? Did someone break in?” Butcher glances around but sees nothing out of place.
Father Curtis shakes his head. “No vandals. No people.”
“You know you can't call the police because a building is falling apart.”
The man's face wrinkles. “I'm not so old and feeble that I dial 911 because I can't change a light-bulb.” The old man catches himself, grips his chest, allowing himself a moment to calm down. In this moment, Butcher can't help but think of his father. “Would you like to see why I called you,” the priest asks.
“At this point,” Butcher says, “I think I'd better.”
The priest steps to the edge of the abyss. He beckons Officer Butcher to join him, his pale hand pointed to a safe place in the grass. With firm words he tells the younger man to take a look.
“You should step back from there,” Butcher replies.
“Nonsense, it's perfectly safe.” The wind blows at his robes, moves through his spider-web hair.
Butcher moves from the back door toward Father Curtis. He chooses his footsteps like the ground is made of glass. He tries not to seem worried in front of the old man, yet he knows it would be foolish to rush forward and risk falling in, potentially to his death. Once he's alongside the man, he ventures a peek down.
The sinkhole's sides run straight down for twenty feet until they angle in sharply. The bottom, just visible in the morning light, is littered with ancient, damp wood. What looks at first glance like roots and branches stuck out from its walls have fingers and toes. The stones littering the bottom have names, pieces of words carved into them.
“It swallowed up the whole graveyard,” Father Curtis says. Across from them, a length of five or six cars away, the jagged metal gate still stands, the old wall spread along the sheer drop.
A breeze blows up at them. It brings with it the smell of dirt and death. A headache, light at first but growing in intensity, settles into Butcher's brow. It's a strange sensation, and Father Curtis notices the change in his expression.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine. When did this happen?”
“Sometime during the night. I slept right through it, it seems, never heard a thing.” He points to the far end of the sinkhole. “That skull there belongs to the honorable Edward T. Billings, the first mayor of Shallow Creek. He was a far cry from that jester we have now.” The priest clears his throat, trying to cover his wavering voice. “I let him down. I let them all down. They left me in charge and I failed them.” He stares down at the shattered skulls with a softness in his eyes, as if looking at old friends.
“There's not much sense blaming yourself. Sinkholes, floods, avalanches, landslides- they're natural parts of life.”
“Thank you, but I suspect you and I have different philosophies on cause-and-effect.” Father Curtis turns away from the wound in the Earth. He puts his leathery hand on Butcher's arm. “I need to lie down a while. Now this site is historical, you understand, protected under law. You can cover it up to make sure no children fall in, but absolutely no one is to remove or touch anything down there. Even photographs are to go through me. I expect you'll make the proper arrangements.”
Butcher nods. With that, Father Curtis walks back to the church door.
“One more thing, father,” Butcher calls out.
The man stops. Turns. “What is it, my son?”
“You and I. We've never met, isn't that right?”
“So why did you ask for me by name?”
Father Curtis smiles sadly. “In dark days, we need as many torches as we can get.” The old man hobbles back inside the church, leaving Butcher alone and staring down into the mangled abyss.
In the distance, a station wagon pulls up to a newly purchased house.
With its slatted fence, brick facade and long roof covered in delicate vines of ivy, the house has the appearance of an old, Danish farmhouse. White outlines on its windows perfectly frame the view of its ample front yard, and when the wind moves through the pines, the shadows cast on the grass have the effect of hypnosis on one's vision.
In short, it's the kind of place city folks fantasize about when they're stuck in traffic.
In the front yard, next to their fully-packed car, a young couple holds hands. Today is supposed to be the happiest day of Kevin and Mary's lives, and if not the happiest of all time, at least in the top five. There's the wedding day, and the day he proposed in the tent as it rained outside. But right up there on that list of life-changing moments, of the days they'll remember and cherish, today has a special place reserved. It is, after all, the day Kevin and Mary move into their first house.
This day is a sum of years, a product of saving and planning, hunting and looking, making offers and getting hopes up only to lose out at the last hour then finally having their dream home land in their laps at a price they can't pass up.
Today is a perfect day. So why does Kevin Robins feel so uneasy? What explanation is there for the ominous freeze that grips his gut with needled fingers and refuses to release him?
Why does he feel like a man who just signed his own autopsy report?
Mary is good at reading Kevin's silences. Whenever she comes home from her dental assistant job and finds him with the refrigerator door open, staring at the food until the packages sweat, she knows he's worried about money. When he goes ten or twenty minutes on the internet without laughing or sharing some awful photograph with her, she knows he's having a bad day. When he stares at a page of broken code for too long without his eyes darting back and forth like he's reading an alien language, she knows he's stuck in a doubt spiral that will end with torn pages and deleted files and a nap on the couch that will solve everything.
That's why today's silence has her so concerned- because no matter which way she turns her head, Mary can't translate it.
“What's wrong,” she asks. As always he pretends everything is fine, no problems, feel great, happy, so she drops the subject. In her heart, though, she knows he's lying, not to be deceitful but to put her worries to rest. She has a tendency to obsess over small issues until they become large ones, so Kevin has developed the equal tendency to mute his reactions in order to spare her the panic attack.
He means well. The problem is, Mary knows this about Kevin. She knows his good heart brings him to silence, and as a result nothing sets off her fear quicker than Kevin's lack of it.
As the couple unpacks the stacks of cardboard boxes containing the total of their shared life, inside, they're both screaming.
The fly paper is heavy with dead flies, their wings like rice paper. His feet perched on the wobbly toilet seat, careful not to touch the tacky glue, Butcher grabs the string and pulls the trap from the ceiling, thumb tack and all.
The phone rings. He curses and drops the mess between the toilet and the shower, where years of someone else's dust and piss swallow it up. Shaking his head, he jumps down from the toilet to pick up the phone from the sink. He looks at the name on the caller ID, and then, after a few rings, he picks up.
“I know you said not to call,” Elaine says.
“Then why did you?”
“I wanted to see how you're doing in the new apartment.”
Butcher walks out of the bathroom and into the dank living room. “It's nice,” he says, looking up at the sagged ceiling, like a diaper needing a change.
“Nice is good. And you?”
“Just the same?”
He exhales. “What do you want me to say, Elaine? Nothing's changed. Same guy, different town.” He kicks the refrigerator to open the jammed door.
“I never wanted you to change who you were, just to stop punishing yourself for whoever that is.” The line is silent for a long stretch. Then, “It's okay to ask about him.”