by S.E. Casey
Mattias prepared the church for the Sunday service. He lit the incense, set the hymnals in the pews, and hung the drape with the purple cross over the pulpit. It had been another trying week as the lone altar boy, but again, he had restored peace and tranquility here.
A crash echoed from the back room.
Mattias hurried to Father Pinn’s quarters. The priest was especially active on Sunday mornings, a hangover from the countless services he had presided over through the years. Sure enough, he had managed out of his cot and lay sprawled on the floor. His legs churned as if he was still walking, impotently kicking like a sleeping dog. Mattias sighed, pulling away the shelves that had been knocked down, making sure not to get bit by the priest’s gnashing teeth.
“Levanta, Padre.” Mattias stood the old man and guided him to the cot. He didn’t bother to lay him down; the service would be starting soon.
He checked the back of Father Pinn’s neck. The steel rod used to hold the peeling four corners of flesh was still intact. The flaps of skin hung so heavy they threatened to slough off his body. Mattias had inserted the makeshift pin through holes punched into each quadrant of skin. Twisting the rod a half-turn held them together, so far.
Mattias pulled up the priest’s robes and combed his white shock of hair. He didn’t like the looks of Father Pinn’s bruised, sallow complexion, but the congregation wouldn’t get close enough to notice.
Retreating back to the church, Mattias extinguished the incense, satisfied that it masked the smell of ammonia and bleach. He slid the wooden board free from the slots in the double doors. It was heavy lifting for someone his age.
Swinging the doors open, those who had gathered filed in. They were all tourists, in from one of the resorts down the coast. This was nothing new; the locals had stopped attending after Father Pinn’s change. However, the Sunday service continued on, a never-ending supply of new vacationers desiring an authentic island church experience.
After he seated everyone, Mattias collected Father Pinn. Fortunately, it took little effort to funnel him into the nave. It was amazing how the priest pulled himself together at this exact time each week.
Father Pinn launched into the service at soon as he hit the pulpit. Frequently his voice slipped and he slurred his words together. Like the body, his voice was failing. The parishioners didn’t seem to notice, most of them half-asleep or hungover. The ones that did listen would blame it on a mixing in of the island’s Creole dialect.
Mattias took the time before the hymn to circle to the church’s entrance. He reset the wooden board quietly, struggling it through the slots on the handles and sides. He checked the offering plate at the top of the central aisle, frowning at the piece of hard candy and torn raffle stub inside. However, it didn’t matter, they would be persuaded to give generously.
Returning to his seat behind the pulpit as the service droned on, Mattias noticed the priest’s robe sagging at the back, exposing the wound. One flap of skin had all but worked free from its cinch, tearing like a split earlobe. The meat beneath was mostly black, made up of rotted sinew, clotted fluids, and insect eggs. Mattias winced knowing how heavy the skin was, gravity pulling it down like a wet rug on a thin clothesline.
Mattias distracted himself by focusing on his own robe. He hadn’t realized it, but his stained alb rode halfway up his shin. He was growing up here in more ways than one.
Father Pinn directed the sleepy congregation to the hymnals. But the referenced page wouldn’t be found, the cursed sheet ripped out long ago, although not soon enough.
The shadows in the stained glass stirred in anticipation. Topaz cherubs smirked, emerald angels blinked. Father Pinn commenced a cappella, vocalizing the first sinister notes. A melody most foul, the parishioners were jolted to attention. Some hurriedly thumbed through the hymn books as if finding the offending sheet music would offer some clue to dispel its corruption. But nothing would placate the bitter harmony.
The sanctuary broken, shadows oozed free from the stained glass, seraphim visages dissolving into dark, oily mouths. This abyssal choir of teeth and tongue joined the priest in song.
Mattias sat staring at his shaking hands as the carnage began. The singers threatened, and fluids of various color and consistency splashed onto him, but he didn’t flinch. As long as he didn’t scream or cry out, they wouldn’t harm him. Still, tears ran down his cheeks. As much as he bragged to Vovò about being a man, he was too young for this.
Fists beat against the exit, trying to push open the doors, the parishioners too panicked to unslide the board to unblock it. The shadow choir would cut them down before they figured it out. No one would escape, another Sunday the same.
When the screaming stopped, Father Pinn was again the lone voice. To the strains of the last verse, the drunken shadows slunk back to their glass prison. As they refilled the glass, the windows sucked in and bowed out as though the church breathed. It would be a few days before any color would reappear in the now black and grey glass.
Father Pinn called for his altar boy. Mattias waded into the aisle, locating one of the overturned collection plates. He sighed at the anticipation of another week of wall to wall cleaning. However, those concerns would have to wait as Father Pinn wouldn’t continue until the Offertory was completed.
Pew by pew, body by body, Mattias dug through the greasy butchery, filling the collection plate with the wallets, purses, rings, and necklaces of the generous faithful.