Whispers are the only thing you can hear in the dark streets of Amoa. They say never turn your back on the main street church. Especially if you’re alone. Their cold, breathy warnings are the only company you’ll find as you wander the asphalt coated with a thin layer of late fall snow.
Wind ruffles my hair. I stagger as the strong gusts push me into the street, as if telling me to stay away. Pulling my beanie lower over my reddening ears, I right myself. Nothing is going to stop me. Not the whispers, not the wind. Certainly not rationality. I have to know what’s in the church, why no one will pray in it but no one dares to tear it down.
I know the people here think I have ill intent. They do not trust me. I can hardly blame them. When you live in a town so small you can drive through it in the blink of an eye, a stranger intruding on your familiar, comfortable life can hardly be a welcome thing. Though I could do without the muttered insults and the glares in my back so scorching I fear they might set me on fire.
And it isn’t just their obvious disdain for me that’s put me on edge. It’s their fear for me too. It’s hidden in their eyes; a secret so deep, so dark, so rooted within their history, their people, that breathing a word of it could crumble the town. But what is it? Why do they guard the church so? It’s my duty to find out. I owe it to my editor to find a good story that could pull our newspaper away from the brink of ruin. I owe it to my grandmother who lived and died in Amoa, never once allowing us to visit. She urged my father to leave as soon as he could, to never come back, to never think of it.
For the most part he followed that, though in his teenage days he’d ventured close to the church himself and I knew he longed to do so again, to find out what really lurked there. Fortunately or not, I inherited his curious spirit.
I halt in front of the church. Fog curls around the tall bronze spires that puncture the night sky. Stained glass depicts holy stories on every side of the church, their beautiful colors muted by layers of grime. An enormous cracked bell hangs beneath the spires, surrounded by smaller bells that shine with an impossible golden glint in the darkness.
Two grand oak doors with bronze knockers seal the entrance. The longer I stare, the less durable they seem to be. One creaks open. It falls to the concrete sidewalk with a thump. Shouldn’t the sound have woken nearly everyone on the block? No. It’s like all sound has been swallowed by the atmosphere. And everything on main street is closed by now anyway.
I can’t deny the eeriness of it all. Part of me wishes to turn back, to heed everyone’s warnings. Curiosity drowns out my sensibility. I take a step forward. Through the wrought iron gates, everything shifts. I try to remember the rules my father made me memorize.
Never stop in the graveyard. If you do, pay kind respects to each tomb. Never skip one. Not one. They will know. They will remember.
Don’t stop. I keep my eyes focused on the door hanging open, beckoning for me to enter. Crossing the threshold is like entering a new world. One that’s oddly warm, omniscient, unforgiving. I readjust my backpack on my shoulders. When did it become so heavy? I hadn’t packed more than two bottles of water. No wine. My father was very adamant about that.
I itch to grab my flashlight. If you go alone, don’t use a flashlight. You’ll see things you don’t want to. I know the warning. But am I not here to see things? Shed light on the shadowed secrets of the church? I turn it on. Dull yellow light floods the entryway in a thin stream. No going back now.
Dust floats in the light, so thick it’s like it’s snowing in here too. I swing the light around, illuminating the thick cobweb covered columns of the entryway. All I can hear is the pounding of my blood in my ears. What will I see? Nothing. It’s all bullshit, isn’t it?
Taking a few deep breaths, I calm. I’ve never been one to believe in the supernatural, let alone an all-knowing god. Why start now? No reason to let the fear of it have power over me.
Inside the sanctuary, unease washes over me. Knots form in my stomach. I can feel someone—or something—watching me. I know it’s not real. But I can’t help clenching tighter to my flashlight, grateful for the company of the light.
Colors refract across the pyramidic roof of the sanctuary when I shine light on the stained glass windows. How is it making rainbows everywhere? It’s breathtaking. I smile. Perhaps everyone is hiding the secret of illusory glass hues. Something so brilliant, so enchanting would be coveted by chapels everywhere. Then the peace of their strangely wealthy town would be constantly disturbed.
I wander through the empty pews. If you need to rest, do so only in the sanctuary. But never on a pew. I trail my fingers across the rounded tops of the pews. They come away caked in dust. I scrunch my nose in disgust and wipe my hand on my jacket. The dust is gone without a trace. Vanished from my hand, from my jacket. Strange.
In the congregational booth, chairs are still set up, as if waiting for singers to return. Instruments rest against the wood paneled wall, untouched. The piano and the organ stand side by side, somehow proud in the midst of abandonment and emptiness. I can’t tear my eyes from the organ. Half of me expects it to start playing.
If you hear the organ playing when you’re in the sanctuary, know your time is running out. If the bells ring, your time is up.
I swallow over the lump forming in my throat. Eternal seconds pass. Everything remains silent. I shake the superstition from my mind. None of this is real. It’s just an abandoned church. The worst I’ll find here is a heroin addict with a knife. Granted, that would not be ideal, but at least it would make for a good story. Perhaps this is all a waste of time.
When my light falls on the hymnal, my rationality shifts uncomfortably. It’s not caked in dust like everything else. In fact, the leather bound book full of music looks pristine, as if it was freshly printed. Gently, I open it. The pages are yellowed, textured like parchment. I’ve never been much of a musician, but I can read the notes well enough. And I know they’re not supposed to be changing like this. Every page I turn, the ink shifts more and more. Furrowing my eyebrows, I flip through the entirety of the hymnal to find it’s no longer a language I can comprehend. Nor one I even recognize.
Something shuffles to my right. I stifle a gasp. Instinctively, I shine the light near the altar. Shadows jump out at me from every angle. I blink. They’re gone. My heart beats a little faster. I steady it. Everything is fine. Fear is wrapping its spindly, manipulative fingers around my mind, distorting my perception of reality.
Bibles. There has to be something in there. Weaving my way through every pew, I pick up the stray bibles, each one more worn than the last.
I haven’t confessed. I haven’t said a word since I’ve entered. That is why they’re blank. Until I avow, nothing in this church will open up to me. At least, that is what my father told me. Say anything, and I believe it will be swallowed whole by the suffocating silence. My secrets will become one with the structure. The thought of that is unnerving. I hate how much hold this place has over me. Like every minute I spend here, more of my rationality chips away. Soon, I will not have any left.
Confession room. Surely there’s secrets hidden there. I refuse to walk away from this infernal adventure empty handed. There’s a story here somewhere. I just have to find it.
I pass the age-old wreaths hanging around the crosses taller than me. Metallic, earthy aromas waft beneath my nose. How can they still smell fresh? I catch a glimpse of something shifting in the corner of my eye. The cross. Has it moved? I swear it was to the left of the wreath adorned with blue flowers. Not to the right.
The door to the confession room is slightly ajar. Creaking fills the sanctuary, the sound of it so deafening I’m sure it had to awake anyone who might be squatting here. Inside, candles burn beside bowls of sweet incense so overpowering my eyes water. The delicate orange flames flicker as the draft swirls around them.
I kneel down on the cushion beside the mahogany latticed screen. On the other side, there is no one. I breathe a sigh of relief. For just a moment, I can take a breather. I can whisper the truth of my sins, of everything weighing my spirit down.
As the words pass my lips in breathy murmurs, the candles flicker faster. I feel lighter. The air is heavier.
I open my eyes. The flames seem stronger. Warmer. My mind is clear, my thoughts so precise, it’s dizzying. When I stand, it feels as if my body is changed. Have my sins really been absolved, my spirit replenished? I shake my head. The world swims. No. Confession does nothing. I am the same person I’ve always been. This is only the unnerving atmosphere leading me to delirium.
I steady myself against the wall. I know it’s time to go. I am clearly tampering with fire here, and if I’m not careful something will explode. I’ll find a story somewhere else. Something concrete. Reliable. Rational.
Guided by the light in my hand, I head for the doors I came through. It is then I hear the quiet resonance of the organ. I shine my flashlight on the instrument and the music swells so loud I can’t hear myself think. The next notes are calmer. There is no one playing. The keys move of their own accord.
I glance at the altar. Kneeling before it, hands clasped together in prayer, is the silhouette of a figure that doesn’t seem quite human. They seem to blur the lines between reality and something much darker, constantly flitting in and out between this world and one completely hidden from me.
If you see someone praying at the altar, do not approach them. If they approach you, do not make a sound. Leave immediately. Calmly.
I turn off the flashlight. I know it is a straight shot to the doors outside. The last thing I want is to draw the attention of this creature. Holding my breath, treading lighter than I ever have before, I walk agonizingly slow through the sanctuary. They pay me no mind.
I exhale slowly. Almost out. I pass the baptismal fountain. Its waters are opaque. I’m drawn towards it by some unseen force, some deep yearning to be one with it. As I lean closer, whispers fill my mind. Each voice different. All divulging dark secrets no one should know. All laced with terror.
Drink the baptismal water if you wish never to leave.
I jolt away from the fountain, hardly aware that I’d cupped a handful of the warm water, held it a breath away from my lips. I stumble back, eyes wide, hands shaking. Would I have been trapped? I don’t dare find out. I have to leave. I have to run.
I glance over my shoulder and find the figure at the altar is gone. Turn back towards the door, and there it is, standing before me. Two gaping holes in the ever changing shadows of its face lock with my eyes, fill me with a cold so deep, so encompassing, I fear I’ll never move again. Bells ring, a resonant, beautiful song above my head. I scream. The shrill sound of it shatters the still aura of the church. Everything seems to come alive around me. The candles ignite, the shadows rise in spite of the light.
Tears blur my vision as I sprint through the doors. I don’t stop in the graveyard, I don’t spare any of the quaking tombs a glance. I want out.
I collapse to the sidewalk as soon as I pass the gates. Once again, everything is silent. The wind wraps around me like an incorporeal hug. I stare at the dark church. It looks the same. But the aura is expectant. It wants me to come back. I can feel it.
Using the iron fence as a support, I shakily pull myself to my feet. Lights are on all across main street now. It’s past midnight. Yet houses are awake. I turn to see townspeople are staring. There is nothing in their eyes. Nothing but a cold, tired malice. My lip trembles. All the intrigue and mysteria. They must have created it. A lure for poor souls like me. My grandmother was right. I should have stayed away.
But most importantly, never, ever, turn your back on the church.
I realize my mistake too late. Prosperity demands a heavy price. Amoa expects me to pay it.
Something pulls me back through the gates. I struggle, I scream, I fight harder than I ever have before. I grasp at the gate, desperate for something to hold on to. My hands slip.
Burning sears across my chest. I look down to see my jacket drowning in my blood from five puncture marks on either side of my body. Like fingernails I can’t see holding tight to me, digging so deep they scrape my bones.
My vision swims. Darkness descends. I’ve never felt colder in my life.
And then, I feel nothing at all.
All is still in Amoa.