Authors: Brian Martinez
“You make it sound like it's the house making the choice.”
“A place can have a personality all its own, Officer Butcher. Some are sweet and friendly like a pretty girl in a pink dress. Others are like the razor-blade she keeps tucked beneath her tongue.”
“Are you trying to say the house is dangerous?”
“Anything can be dangerous if you turn your back on it. However if you came here to ask if one of my houses is murdering people, you might want to have yourself checked out. Those aren’t the kind of evaluations I do, I’m afraid.”
Butcher holds up the print-out for her to see the five faces printed in dark, smudged toner- previous owners of the Blackstone property. “Have you attempted to contact any of them in the past year?”
“I wouldn’t waste my time.”
“Because they’re all dead?”
“What?” She overdoes the shocked expression by a mile, landing in a caricature. “Is that true? Are you sure?”
“That would be my guess. Every one of them hasn’t been heard from, to a person.”
“That’s just awful to hear. Just awful. I only meant that it doesn’t pay for me to stay in touch with clients once they move away. I sell homes here, after all, not wherever they went off to.”
“Not one of them left a forwarding address?”
“The first couple- Garrick, I think their name was- left town in such a hurry they left the keys in the mailbox, like I run a hotel service. The others...well I can see why you're suspicious, both of the others moved out overnight. I've lost good money on that house, and the only reason I resold so quickly was to recoup my losses.”
Banks grunts to himself, somehow amused.
“Did you have something to add,” Butcher asks him. The man shakes his head and turns to look out the window. Butcher turns back to Meredith. “He's having some personal problems at home.”
“Aren't we all?”
“Right, well, that's all I have for now, but I'll be back at some point with more questions. If you think of anything or if you dig up a forwarding address, make sure you give me a call.” He hands her his card. She takes it and offers her own, but when he grabs it she doesn't let go, uses it to pull him in closer.
“Come back alone,” she whispers. “He's not helping you any. You and I can go through the files together, see what turns up.” She nods over her shoulder to the doorway in the back. Through it is only darkness, an unlit room that doesn't sit well with Butcher. She licks her lips and stares into his eyes.
“That's a very kind offer, but I'll have to pass.” He glances again at the backroom.
“Then I'm afraid I can't help you.” She lets go of the card, allowing him to pocket it. He leaves, nodding to Banks that they're done here. Before he makes it to the door, Meredith says, “So you don't do it, either.”
“Shake hands.” She wiggles her long, manicured fingers at him. “That's alright, Officer Butcher. Next time.” She smiles and turns her fingers down, playfully shooing him out the door.
He glances one more time at the backroom, then nods and exits without a word, his head off-balance.
Back at the cruiser, Banks is already in the passenger seat. Butcher finds a small piece of paper tucked under the windshield wiper on his side. He removes and unfolds it to find a hand-written note which reads:
Come to the church.
Butcher looks around at Main Street for a sign of the old man in the crowd but comes up short. He crumples the paper, opens his door and gets behind the wheel.
“What was that,” Banks asks.
“Our next stop.” He starts the car and pulls away.
Through the window decorations, Meredith Maycomb watches them go with her phone to her ear.
“Good morning, mistress,” the voice on the other side says.
“He doesn't have it yet,” she says, and hangs up.
After sanding the wood down to a smooth finish, Father Curtis uses an old screwdriver with a broken handle to open a can of cherry stain. He dips his brush into the viscous stuff, carefully runs it along the edge to remove any excess and then, in small, controlled strokes, he sets to staining the confessional's new door.
He remembers clearly, some eighty-odd years ago, when this church was new. It replaced the one that stood here before it which had to be demolished due to a poor foundation. The ground here had always been troublesome, and the town could no longer risk catastrophe, especially during Sunday mass when the building was filled to capacity with good and humble souls.
One especially pretty Spring morning, as if woken from a dream, the men of Shallow Creek gathered up all the wood and nails they owned. They met at the doors of the crumbling church, knocked several times to make sure no one was inside, and then proceeded to destroy the building. Piece by piece they took the sacred place apart. Then they cleared the rubble and got down to building a brand new church.
Elroy Curtis is a curious boy of seven. Small and quiet, he sits in the grass eating an apple under a willow tree and watches the church form under the strain and sweat of the town's men. He watches their wives and daughters bring them food and water, gather in small groups to talk and laugh in the sunlight, their smiles warm, gossiping under the blanket of cicada buzz about which man is strongest.
The truth is, Elroy doesn't understand why they're making such a big deal about the church. It seems to him a waste of time- no matter how much you wish for things to change, it all turns out the same.
An older man notices him out in the grass and waves. Elroy keeps on eating his apple, hoping the man will go away. Instead the older man walks over, hands tucked into his suspenders.
“Morning,” the man smiles. “What's your name?”
Elroy takes another bite of the sweet apple, juice running over his fingers.
“A shy one, huh? That's alright by me. Most folks talk too much anyway, myself included.” He looks back at the half-built church. “I must say, you have the best seat in the house. Cool shade. No work. All you need is a tall glass of sweet tea and you're set.” He looks back down at the boy. “I must apologize, I don't believe I've introduced myself. My name is Edward. Edward Billings.”
The boy says nothing.
“This is normally when folks say their name in return.”
Without swallowing, he says, “Elroy.”
“Pleased to meet you, Elroy. I've never seen you in church, are your folks new in town?”
The boy shakes his head.
“And here I thought I knew everyone. This town never ceases to surprise me. Well then, which one of those fine men is your father?” He motions to the group working in the distance.
Elroy leans around the trunk of the willow tree and points. Billings shades his eyes and squints into the shadows, noticing the shape of a man laid out in the taller grasses. The man's eyes are closed, passed out cold. A mostly empty bottle of whiskey lays in the grass by his open hand.
The older man's face loosens. “I see. Listen, Elroy, would you mind if I sat down next to you? My legs, well, they aren't what they used to be.”
Elroy shrugs and inspects the finished apple in his hand. Billings takes a seat next to him, and his knees pop and crack as he sits.
“See what I mean? It's like the Fourth of July every time I sit.” He tries to make Elroy smile but it doesn't work. “Yeah, so I'm a bit too old to help them build. That doesn't make me useless, does it? Not by a long shot.” He pounds on his chest. “This heart may not be as strong as it used to be, but it's still in the right place. So I'm too old. I'm too old and you're too young and he's too...” He picks his words. “...busy. I've found people help in all sorts of ways. Some folks use their hands, others use their heads, still others use their eyes.” He pokes the side of his gray head. “If the Lord only needed one kind of person, he wouldn't have made us all so different.”
They watch the men working in the distance. Elroy's father lets out a loud fart, breaking the silence. Billings and Elroy look at each other, faces serious, then burst out laughing. They laugh for a long time.
Billings wipes a tear from his eye. “Ahh, you'll come to like it here, Elroy. Shallow Creek is a very special town.”
The mayor smiles, happy to see the boy opening up. “Absolutely. You see every town has a history, a reason for being. Some are built around coal mines, some around trading ports or sources of food. No town simply appears for the sake of it.”
“What was Shallow Creek built around?”
“Tell you what- if I start seeing you in church on Sundays, I promise I'll tell you. Does that seem like a fair deal?”
Elroy chews his cheek. He holds out his dirty, apple juice-covered hand for Billings to shake.
Mayor Billings takes it in his larger, wrinkled hand. In the distance, the steeple is raised up onto the church roof by rope. “You have the spark, son. Ain't no one on Earth can take that from you unless you let them.”
Father Curtis smiles at the memory of that day. It was a different town in those days, populated by different people- the good ones still outnumbered the bad- and it was a point of pride to say one hailed from Shallow Creek. But over time, as families moved on or passed away, replaced by those unfamiliar with its traditions, the town lost its promise, and with it the luster of its name.
The sound of a car pulling into the lot makes him set his brush across the top of the can.
Butcher pulls into the same spot he’s taken three times now. He puts the cruiser into park but doesn’t cut the engine. For several, long seconds he watches the front of the church, considering whether or not he should go inside.
“What business do you have here,” Banks asks, snapping Butcher from his thoughts.
“I just want to say a few prayers. Clear my head a little.” Butcher regrets bringing Banks along. At first it had been to keep an eye on him, then at the Maycomb woman’s office to see how they reacted to each other, what the interaction brought out of them. Here there's no need.
Banks must read it in his face. “I’ll stay in the car,” he says.
“Thanks, it’s probably better that way. Privacy and all.”
“Yes,” the man says, his head straight forward.
Butcher cuts the engine. “I'll try to make it quick.” He exits the car, making sure to take the keys with him, and heads to the church door. At the top of the stairs he glances back at Banks but the man, or whatever he is, hasn't moved, his eyes locked.
Butcher heads inside. Once he's out of sight, Banks picks up the phone and makes a call.
The harsh smell of chemical fumes covers the normally musty air of the church. As Father Curtis approaches, Butcher notices the can of wood stain on the floor by the confession booth.
“Am I interrupting,” he asks, motioning to the newly stained door.
“There's always something to be fixed. People come first.” The priest stops in front of Butcher, his hands folded patiently. “You look troubled. I would invite you to confess but the smell might put you to sleep faster than one of my sermons.”
“That sounds like a recycled joke.”
The old man nods. “At my age, they all are.”
Butcher chews his tongue, looking for the words. “The last time I was here, you were trying to tell me about forces working in the shadows. You said there were dark days ahead.”
“Which as I recall you didn't take very kindly to.”
“It seems I might have...I can see now you were trying to warn me.”
Father Curtis rests his soft hand on Butcher's shoulder, calming him. His eyes hold Butcher's focus steady. “Tell me what you think you've seen, my son, and I'll tell you what it was.”
Seated side-by-side in one of the long pews, the cool wood against his back, Butcher tells Father Curtis how he was chased across a dark field, terrified for his life, by things that were once people. How before that he saw them kill and change and kill again through the window of a young couple. How now those things that were once people are walking around Shallow Creek like they're still people, preparing to do who-knows-what to the townspeople.
How no one believes him.
“Why do you think they don't believe you,” Father Curtis asks.
“Let’s be honest, who would buy that story? I sound like an idiot on an acid trip.”
“People are more open to the fantastic than you give them credit for. I think the truth is they don't believe you because of your problem.” He softens his voice. “Your spirit problem.”