This isn’t real.
Three simple words I’d rarely used in the past, now repeat like a broken record inside my head.
This isn’t real. This isn’t real. This isn’t real.
And yet, here I am.
The moment I crept down the metal-grated stairs outside the café’s hidden door, I found myself walking through a city crowded with buildings of different shapes, sizes, and even colors.
One skyscraper, made entirely of reflective glass, stood so tall, I couldn’t see the top, no matter how painfully I craned my neck.
“What am I doing here?” I murmur to myself. “Meet characters? Gather information?” I sigh. “Why me?”
I stop at a crossing in the roads. Which way do I go? Right? Left? Or straight ahead?
Right. Let’s go right.
“Just listen for the bell.”
That’s what C.C. told me before I left. Well, I’ve walked for what feels like ages and not once have I heard a single sound. In fact, the silence surrounding me is almost unsettling. So far, I’ve yet to see another person wandering around. How am I supposed to speak with people if I can’t find any?
The orange and purple lights of the setting sun reflect off windows of empty cars and stores. I peer into a small diner, the vinyl booths and chairs unoccupied.
Where is everyone?
Curious, I approach the building to my right. Black bricks divided by glowing red lines of mortar reminds me of a dying ember. And as I get closer, I feel the barest hint of warmth. I avoid touching it as I rise to my tiptoes to peek into the low, cathedral-shaped window.
This isn’t real.
There go those words again as I register the scene inside. It’s a garden, or at least it appears to be. Instead of carpet or hardwood floors, blades of green grass cover the floor. A large, elegant tree decorated with pale-blue blossoms stands tall at the center of what I presume to be a living room.
At the base, a young woman stands completely motionless. I can’t see her face, only her back and the long fall of her dark hair. She’s wearing a gown made of flowy, white material. Her right hand gently rests atop a long, elegant sword sheathed at her hip.
A fight? No, she’s too relaxed to be preparing for a fight.
She’s looking up at something. I follow the direction of her face, eyes going wide when I spot a young man sitting amongst the branches.
My first thought is how well balanced and relaxed he looks. My second is how good looking he is. His hair is long, straight, and black. He wears it down, unhindered by any ornaments or ties. Black robes hang from around his shoulders, and his gaze is trained down towards the woman.
If they’d been moving before I showed up, they weren’t anymore. They stand so still, they remind me of statues, and I wonder if they’re not people at all, but mere decorations in the garden they stand within.
Characters, a voice whispers to me.
They’re characters! I found some! The surge of excitement dancing inside my chest surprises me. I don’t even want to be doing this, why am I happy?
I shake my head, and step away. I don’t have time for this. I’m here for a specific reason, right? If the Author wants me to speak with specific characters, I don’t think this is them. I can’t even see a door leading inside. Only windows. Most of them blacked out anyway.
I debate with myself. Should I head back the way I came? Or continue going straight?
Just as I decide to turn back, something catches my eye.
A church. At the end of the street a few blocks away. It’s tall, elegant, and very, very dark.
Chills break out along my arms at the sight of it, and yet I find myself moving closer. A giant, stained glass window decorates the front several feet above the double, oak doors. There is no fence to keep people out, and unlike all the other buildings and establishments, this one has doors.
That’s a sign, right?
I make towards the stone steps, noting how unkept the yard looks. Patches of weeds distort the lawn, marking a space no one has seen to for some time. Cobwebs decorate the front doors, and I mentally prepare myself for a poisonous bite as I grab the doorhandle, and push.
Rusty nails and hinges protest as the door slowly swings open. I hear the distant sound of wings as my entry disturbs a flock of pigeons somewhere inside. The smell of musk and dust and dirt hits my nostrils as my eyes adjust to the darkness inside.
The pressure of my steps make the old floorboards creak as I creep along the back wall. Pews fill the space, some standing straight, others are turned over on their sides, backs, or fronts. The ceiling is high, wooden beams coming to a peak at the center.
The altar at the front is remarkably simple. A giant, wooden cross hangs above a table littered with tiny, red glass cups.
Despite the light outside, it feels like night inside. I see no sun rays dyed hues of red, yellow, or blue. In fact, no light enters this place at all, except the tiny bit coming through the door I opened.
Careful steps keep me from running into anything—
Well, kept me from running into anything. I hiss as I rub the sore spot on my shin. Stupid, overturned pew. I give it a soft kick for its obvious, personal attack on me.
Sighing, hands on hips, I give the space another once over.
Why did you even come in here? I ask myself. Because you’re too curious for your own good. I answer.
“Shut up.” I whisper to my inner voices.
I should probably go. Even as I think it, I walk deeper into the church, drawing towards the right where an elegant and large organ sits.
The cushion on the seat is worn, the keys on the board caked in dust. Large, lackluster pipes of bronze take up a huge portion of the wall. I shouldn’t touch it.
I really shouldn’t touch it.
My hand extends towards one of the black and white keys. My finger lightly tracing a line in the dust before pressing down.
A long, loud note bursts from one of the pipes, nearly deafening me. The whole church shook, dust and debris falling from the ceiling. I coughed when I accidentally inhale several of the tiny particles.
There is a brief moment of stillness, a sort of loud quiet. Light burst from the altar, and I stifle a cry of shock as tiny flames flare to life inside the red, glass cups. The entire altar is lit with a sudden red glow.
Dim though it is, the brightness makes me blink and I lift my hand to shield my sensitive eyes. The sound of creaking wood sets my heart to beating.
Someone’s here with me.
The stillness from before is banished by the presence of another person. Slowly, I lower my hand, preparing myself for whatever, or whoever has joined me inside. At first, I don’t see him. The soft glow of dozens upon dozens of tiny candles distracting me.
I eventually catch sight of him, sitting in the pew at the very front of the church. His head bowed in prayer. He’s clad in a black leather jacket and black leather gloves. The fact I’m suddenly in the same room as another person makes my stomach clench with apprehension.
What was it I asked myself earlier? About where everyone is? Suddenly, I’m questioning why I even asked.
I glance towards the open double doors. Maybe I can get out before he notices me.
I take a tentative step, then another. He doesn’t stir. Perhaps he’s frozen like the other two I saw in the window.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he says. His voice is smooth, silky, weighed with the familiar accent of a person who spoke Spanish as their first language.
I freeze, briefly wondering if he’s talking to me or not.
“It’s a church,” I say, the words tumbling from my lips of their own accord. “Aren’t churches open to everyone?”
What am I saying? Why am I saying it?
“Not this one.” He stands, stepping out from the pew. The candlelight highlights his olive toned skin and dark hair. His brown eyes appear weary, somber. He’s wearing a pair of dark blue jeans tucked into black boots. I average him to be around his mid to late twenties. Yet his expression belongs to one who’s older. Who’s seen things the average person never should.
“Laid your claim, have you?” Again, what am I saying?? I bring a hand to my mouth, trying to stop whatever might come popping out next.
He scoffs and walks to the altar. His gloved fingers grasp what appears to be a long matchstick. He dips it into one of the red glasses, then uses the newly lit tip to light a couple more candles.
“It’s not about laying claim,” he finally responds. “This place was abandoned long ago. There’s no reason for you to be here.”
Nope, I am not responding to that.
“I could say the same to you.” Damn it!!
He chuckles, leaning his weight against the table. “Is that why you came? To try and convince me to leave?”
For some reason, I pop down onto the organ chair, crossing my legs in a very nonchalant manner. I try to make my body unwind itself, but it’s not listening to me. “You should go home,” I chastise. “See your little brother. I’m sure he misses you.”
“You know I can’t,” is his sad reply.
“Why not?” I quip.
He whirls on me, disbelief in his expression at the fact I even asked. I stare him down, challenging him. Daring him.
What are doing? I internally scream. Get ahold of yourself!
But it’s becoming apparent I’m not myself. Not quite.
Without a word, he unzips and shrugs out of his leather jacket, tossing it onto the back of a nearby pew. He moves his right shoulder forward, exposing an arm covered in a gray and black tattoo.
From his wrist to the edge of his short sleeve, inked sketches of twisted figures clamber over each other. Their hollow eyes and mouths are wide, as though they’re screaming.
The only figure appearing calm is the one right at the center. A skeletal face grinning out from beneath a black hood.
It’s just a tattoo, I tell myself. It’s just a tattoo.
But it’s not. I can feel it. Those hollow eyes are staring out from his skin. I can almost hear the frightened screams of those trapped inside. Their cries echoed by the sound of pleased laughter. Laughter, my eyes follow, all the way back to that grinning skeleton.
The sounds, the sights, the emptiness creeps along my spine like a bony finger. Unable to take the pressure, I look away.
“That’s what I thought,” the young man murmurs.
The sound of moving leather and the soft sound of a zipper moving lets me know he’s covered it back up.
“And you want me to bring that around him? Around the only family I have left?”
I close my eyes, steeling myself to fight him further. “You’re not accomplishing anything here.” I finally say. “Praying in this abandoned church won’t free you from him.”
Him? Whose him?
“It’s better in here,” he refutes. “He’s quieter in places like this.”
“But how long will that last?” His following silence is all the answer I apparently need. I move to my feet, patting dust from my clothes. “Eventually, you will lose control. Even in here.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Oh yes, I do. You think you’re the first to believe the whispered presence of God could keep him at bay? You’re not. There have been plenty before you.”
My mind reels, trying to grasp what it is I’m saying. How could I possibly know all of that, without actually knowing a single thing?
He turns his back to me, defeat weighing down his shoulders. I see him turn his head up towards the cross on the wall. “Why do you even care?” He whispers.
“Because I don’t want history to repeat itself.” I whisper back.
He falls into silence and I see him clench and unclench his hands. An indication of his internal struggle. He seems to understand what I’m saying, yet he can’t bring himself to believe it.
He glances over his shoulder, meeting my gaze. “You shouldn’t have come.” He walks off, vanishing through a door at the back, left side of the altar.
It slams shut behind him. I blink in response.
And I’m alone again, inside a dark, empty church, with nothing but cobwebs and dust for company.
I unwind my legs and—shocked it’s of my own freewill—and quickly stumble to my feet. The shift in the environment, the conversation, the figure I’d just spoken to leaves me in a state of mind I don’t recognize: I’m scared. I’m confused.
I run for the double doors and burst out into the late evening sunlight. I shield my eyes against the painful rays, hurrying down the front steps of the church.
I turn a corner, the church vanishes from view, and I finally slow.
Huffing and puffing, I bend at the waist, gasping to regain my breath. “What the hell was that?” I demand. My gaze goes skyward. “What the hell was that?”
I don’t know who I’m asking. C.C.? Myself?
All I know is that inside that church, I lost control of myself. I was a different person and I didn’t like it.
I am not doing this! I mentally scream. I’m going home.
I take a step in whatever direction I believe the café to be, when a single sound freezes me in my tracks.
A beautiful, echoing tintinnabulation reverberating off the bricks of an alleyway across the street. It’s dark. I can barely see, yet I know that’s where it came from. It calls to me, coaxing me towards the secrets laying just on the other side.
“No, no, no.” I cross my arms and throw them out. “Screw you, I am not going in there.”
My muscles tense, ready to move, ready to leave. But I hesitate.
What is in there?
Don’t do this to yourself, a rational voice says. Don’t do it.
I try to walk away. Honestly, I do. I take a couple steps in the opposite direction and everything.
I stop at the sound of another bell, coming from the same place.
A frustrated groan escapes my throat and I throw my eyes skyward.
I turn back towards the alleyway, rolling my shoulders. “Okay,” I mumble to myself. “Okay, okay, okay. I’m going.”
I cross the street and, cursing myself for my own curiosity, vanish into the darkness of the alley.