Father Solomon Hart heard thunder as the man behind the podium declared, “Open the 1920 Wichita County Time Capsule!” It was his blood pressure, nothing more.
Respectful applause rippled through a crowd of maybe two dozen. Attendees sat in folding chairs beneath the shade of a canopy, protected from the late summer sun. On a raised platform stood two tables. Upon the first rested a glittering assortment of objects about to be put into the earth. An iPad, a Bible, a glossy magazine, more. Next to these stood a polished, stainless-steel box bearing a plaque that read, WICHITA COUNTY TIME CAPSULE 2020.
For now, all eyes settled on the other table, where sat a single, weighty object obscured beneath the Texas flag. At the speaker’s declaration, two men tugged away the flag to reveal a large metal box, its surface discolored, pitted, but seemingly intact. A rusted padlock presented little challenge as the men brandished a Dremel. They fired it up and before long there were sparks and the sound of old steel giving up the ghost.
Cameras snapped and clicked. Father Hart estimated that, aside from himself, the number of people in the crowd who were not with the press could be accounted for with the fingers of a single hand. Had the original ceremony in 1920 fostered so much excitement?
One young lady in professional dress noticed him surveying the crowd and narrowed her eyes. She wore a modest skirt and hair ready for a close up in front of Old Main. She was maybe one-quarter his age.
I’m about to become the color commentary in her article, he thought.
Briefly, Father Hart considered leaving the crowd in case things went according to his fears rather than according to his grandfather’s plan. He knew the effort would be pointless. If things went awry, then there would be no safe space.
Fear is a sin, he had learned as a child, though he would say no such thing to any parishioner who came seeking guidance. It was the worst sort of advice, because it came accompanied by a rationale—Because when you fear you tell the world that God does not have the power to protect you—that sounded like gospel truth. In nine and a half decades on this Earth, Father Solomon Hart had come to understand that fear exists for a reason. Only the mad ignore what frightens them.
Father Hart blinked. The box stood open on the table. The man at the podium, a lean fellow with thinning hair and his shirt sleeves rolled up who had been introduced as the Chair of the Sociology Department, regaled the crowd (Regaled the press, Father Hart corrected himself) with descriptions of items that had been stored by the beloved residents of Wichita County exactly one hundred years ago. Half a dozen items had been arrayed upon the table while he reminisced.
It was a bitter realization. Despite his age, Father Hart had all his marbles, but none of them rolled as fast as they used to. That troubled him, because he had one more thing to do in this life before he could go and rejoin his parents. And ask his grandfather just what he had been thinking one hundred years ago. One more vitally important task.
He made himself focus. On the table lay a water-damaged newspaper, what appeared to be some sort of pamphlet or playbill, a Bible curled almost into the shape of the letter C, a century-old American flag, and two other items that appeared to have been ruined by their period of interment.
How many stars would there be on that flag? Father Hart wondered.
“Is that the one?” the Chair of Sociology asked, his voice half-caught by the mic.
The men emptying the box shrugged. Then one nodded.
Father Hart heard thunder again. His scalp did not prickle the way it once did, but old fears revitalized it better than the shampoo in those commercials. He thought, This is it.
The thing that Solomon Hart, Sr, had brought back from the Dark Silver Mine at great personal cost. Of the posse Father Hart’s grandfather had joined, only the Methodist left the mine with him. The sheriff, his deputies, the Texas Rangers, and the U.S. marshals had all given their lives. Each, in his last moment, had come to understand that they had gone into the earth hunting something that walked like a man but had no place in God’s creation.
Either that, or my earthly father believed wholly in the ravings of a madman, Father Hart thought. It was a half-hearted prospect borne of anxiety, though. Over the years, he had found that he held little stock in the notion that his grandfather had been driven mad by the carnage he witnessed in the mine. The Methodist had left very detailed writings regarding the nature of the creature they had bound. It had cut a swath across Asia, then terrorized Europe throughout the 1800s. It fled to the States and the Old West before the turn of the century, where it allowed people to call it anything from Chupacabra to Wendigo as it slaked its thirst on unsuspecting homesteaders.
The Chair of Sociology addressed the crowd with an eager smile. “I believe we have someone in the crowd today who has a personal claim to the next item from the Wichita County Time Capsule.”
These words elicited a gasp of appreciation from several reporters. The color commentary had just become that much more colorful. Someone’s blog would get a few extra hits and a little added revenue.
“Father Solomon Hart III, whose grandfather was present at the sealing ceremony for this very time capsule one hundred years ago today!”
Father Hart got to his feet. The Good Lord had seen fit to bless him with self-sufficiency all the way to this moment. He smiled, not at the polite applause that greeted his successful rise from sitting, but rather at the memory of his father saying—in January 1942, this was—I won’t be there to see the capsule opened. Neither will you, Sol. It’s your responsibility to keep our name going, and to make sure your son knows what he must do when 2020 gets here.
Father Hart thought, Here I am, though, Dad.
Not that he had much choice. His reaction to the war had opposed that of the rest of what historians called the Greatest Generation. He had come home and vowed never to bring new life into a world so damaged that it could create the horror he had seen across Europe. He had no part in the Boomer generation beyond counseling them towards love and charity, towards grace. When he spoke his vows before the Lord, he whispered another one that he would live to see this day.
“One silver tube,” said the Chair of Sociology as Father Hart made his way along the turf.
Chromium steel, he thought. Another few years and his grandfather and the Methodist might have been able to get stainless. Not that the speaker was completely wrong. There was silver somewhere inside the tube. Along with six other blessed accoutrements.
“This is a real work of art,” the speaker went on. “I see crosses and other engravings. Beautiful. Very nice, and it appears to have been perfectly preserved.”
He’s going to talk the entire time I’m walking, Father Hart realized.
And he did. Arming sweat from his brow, the Chair of the Sociology Department drew on the religious iconography and expounded upon the piety of homesteaders in mid- to late-19th century Wichita County. Then he went on to posit that the seeds those settlers had planted had borne the fruit of a Godly society they all enjoyed today. Father Hart had heard shorter homilies in a church, but he could do nothing to make his crossing go faster. At last, he reached the three wooden steps to the platform. He glared at them briefly. Then he thrust his hands upward.
The speaker looked down, startled. At long last he had fallen silent.
Father Hart flexed his fingers, ignoring the pang of arthritis. He did not have a bad case, but there was a storm brewing. He did not want to dwell on how symbolic that might be.
The man who had wielded the Dremel now bent and placed the gleaming tube into Father Hart’s outstretched hands.
A tube as long as his forearm and maybe four inches in diameter, the smooth chromium steel wasn’t especially hot or cold. It didn’t thrum with unholy power. A thin line showed where the cap had been sealed long ago. He stared at it a moment longer, thinking, It looks like a holy Thermos. Monty Python would have positively loved this. And all this fuss over you.
He craned his neck to peer up at the man who had handed it to him. “Young man?”
“Do me the favor of putting this onto the other table, will you?”
Murmurs behind him. The man at the top of the steps looked to the podium as if asking, Can he do that?
You’ll find that it’s all been arranged, Father Hart thought.
“Would you like to open it first?” asked the Chair of Sociology, his voice again half-caught by the mic and garbled across campus.
A patient smile was the only reply Father Hart offered. He recaptured the gaze of the man above him, waited till he felt the smooth tube leave his hands. Without another word spoken, he watched the man place the tube between the iPad and the glossy magazine. Not next to the Bible.
Then Father Hart left the gathering for the parking lot. His Uber driver, Ken, had offered no resistance when asked to wait. Ken had received a healthy tip up front and would probably wait through the Breaking of the Seals if it came to it. Hopefully, it wouldn’t.
“Father? Father Solomon!”
It was the young woman who had spotted him earlier, the reporter seeking color commentary for her article. Father Hart stopped halfway between the ceremony and the parking lot. The sun was warm, but the breeze was cool. Autumn was in the offing. The magnified voice of the Chair of Sociology resumed the litany of artifacts from an era no one remembered. A time when hungry things fled into the earth but could not be kept there.
Father Hart put on a game smile and opened his mouth to demure.
“This must be an important day for you, Father,” she said. She held an iPhone in one hand. No notepads and pens these days. Any misquotes were purposeful.
“I’m actually very tired,” he said, which was true.
“Was the cannister intact?” she asked as if he had greeted her warmly.
“Eh? Oh, I suppose it was.”
“And the engravings. Were those verses from the Bible?”
“I can’t say. I’ve only just handled it long enough to see it returned to its rest.”
“Rest, Father? That’s an interesting choice of words.”
Father Hart put on his smile again, a well-rehearsed response he had used for half a century. When someone played Stump-the-Priest, he smiled patiently and bought time to think. Thinking came slower these days, but it came nonetheless.
Except she didn’t wait. “Are you aware of the rumors surrounding your grandfather’s time capsule when it was sealed in 1920?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”
He noticed she had come without a camera man. That seemed strange. Unless she was using her iPhone to capture video and audio. Was that something reporters did now?
“It’s probably not relevant after all these years,” she said. “But I wouldn’t be so casual about the earthquake that shook Wichita County in 1926. People felt it in their homes and at work all the way to Dallas. It cracked foundations across Wichita Falls.”
Father Hart resisted the sudden urge to walk back to the canopy and the table with its glittering array of modern-day artifacts. In January 1942 his father had described the chromium-steel tube in detail. It would not rust. The iconography and inscriptions—and the seven holy relics they contained—would keep the creature trapped within. The Methodist had provided a ritual that Father Hart would perform later tonight, after the 2020 capsule was safely in the earth. Everything had gone according to his grandfather’s plan. Hadn’t it?
He heard himself whisper, “Earthquake?”
“Yes, Father. Did you hear, earlier, that the time capsule itself had been damaged in the quake? The man at the microphone speaks quite fast, but he mentioned that several items had been water damaged.”
He thought of the Bible curled into the shape of a C. The illegible newspaper.
“You looked like you were in deep thought, Father. I understand that happens sometimes as you get older.”
“You may have wanted to inspect the bottom of the cannister. I think…well, I wouldn’t want to concern you, but…Look at this.”
She presented her iPhone. On the screen was not a video or any sort of recorder. Father Hart saw a picture of himself before the ceremonial platform. He held the tube—the prison—looking very tired from his walk through the sea of chairs. She touched the screen with two fingers and then pulled them apart, zooming in on the bottom of the tube. He saw it immediately.
“Solomon?” she asked. “Is that a crack?”
“Our Father, Who art in Heaven,” Father Hart began. He had uttered this prayer thousands of times, even tens of thousands, but he doubted he had ever spoken each syllable with such fervent intensity. “Hallowed be Thy name—”
The reporter smiled sweetly. “Should I tell Ken that you won’t be making the trip home?”
“Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done—”
Is that a crack? Father Hart’s mind raced as it had not in a decade or more.
When was there an earthquake?
“1926,” she said as if answering the question he had not voiced. “Your grandfather’s prison lasted, maybe six years? After that…” The creature that walked like a woman shrugged. “I’ve had quite a bit of time. Idle hands. You’ve seen my work, yes?”
Father Hart let his words trail off. She wasn’t here to kill him. Not here, in front of all these people. The purpose of this confrontation was to gloat. All the same, he would never perform the ritual tonight.
“You never took your revenge.” His voice sounded small.
“I did, though. Day by day. My Depression crushed your father. My World War broke you. Do you have any idea how many children you would have had? Grandchildren? How long ago you would have been on the other side of Saint Peter and beyond the reach of all your fears?”
Father Hart blinked. His throat clenched. If he were a younger man, he would have fought. He had committed the Rite of Exorcism to memory as just one of several failsafe measures in case the prison failed. If this confrontation had come twenty years ago, maybe even ten, he would still be able to speak over the erratic pounding of his heart.
She raised her hands, encompassing the world around them. Her eyes were dark now, prideful. “I’ve waited one hundred years to meet you here, on this spot, where your grandfather failed to stop me. And this—this year—this is my finale. Just wait to see how the curtain comes down.”
“Forgive us our trespasses,” Father Hart wheezed. Every word echoed beneath the throbbing in his temples. Thunder. There was a storm brewing. He thought his knees might buckle.
“Come on, Sol,” said the creature. She looped her woman’s arm around his elbow the way no lover ever had. She kept him from falling. “Poor Ken is long gone. Let me take you home.”