Author’s note: This is a short story I wrote for my writer’s group, the Masked Dragon Society. Each of us were given a picture at random as a prompt and instructed to write either a short story or poem about the image. I wrote this based off the above picture.
They say when the wind blows east it still smells like smoke.
I don’t know I believe it, considerin’ “they” happens to be Billie Jo Tanner and Henry McClain, the two biggest hooligans in all the sophomore class of Willow Creek High, but it don’t mean I don’t stay out of them woods like all the proper kids do.
Gramma always told me, “You stay out of them woods, Ada Mae. Them’s the preacher’s woods.” Then she’d pull up her sleeve and show me that burn scar on her arm that sort-of looks like a hand print. My Mama would laugh and tell me Gramma was jokin’ and then tell Gramma not to try and scare me, but all of my fourteen years I stayed out of them woods anyway.
At least, I did stay out. Until tonight.
“Well, Ada?” Billie Jo jeers at me, her braces glintin’ in the glow of my flashlight as her big, stupid smile spreads across her big, stupid face. “Are you gonna do it, or are you yeller like Viginia?”
I ball my hands into fists. For the love, Vivi.
I do love my big sis, but it ain’t always easy growin’ up three years younger than Virginia Vandine, valedictorian, the girl accepted to the State University, the goody-two-shoes who’s goin’ places. Them big ol’school teachers might respect her but these kids sure don’t.
Henry nudges Billie Jo. “Yeah, she’s yeller.”
I shoot him my nastiest glare, the one I usually save for that old rooster who likes to sneak up from behind me and stick me with his spurs when I’m tossin’ the scratch to the hens. “I ain’t yeller. I’m just gettin’ a good look from here first.”
The moon’s risin’ over the hillside, turnin’ those black trees silver, and just about out-shinin’ my little flashlight. It’s a Thunder Moon — that’s what my Pa would call it, anyway. Mama don’t like when I talk about him anymore, but I still do it. I wipe my sweaty brow on my sleeve and pretend it’s because it’s hot, and not because I know I really am yeller.
Every kid in Willow Creek has heard stories about the preacher. I don’t rightly know which ones are true. But, I do know in them olden days he burned down that church and it made everybody so yeller they moved away and just left it there, a charred wooden skeleton sittin’ a little taller than the live oaks and sweetgums.
“Ada,” my friend Luella leans in close to me. “We don’t have to go in there.”
I turn and beam my flashlight on the chest of her pretty green plaid shirt. I don’t look that pretty tonight, but of course I wore my old red t-shirt and jean-shorts overalls because I knew what I was comin’ here for.
“It’ll be fine, Luella,” I say, and flash her a quick smile. She’ll know it’s fake but Henry and Billie Jo don’t. “There ain’t no demons in these woods. And I ain’t scared of no preacher.”
Luella tugs at her pretty blonde braid. “Ada, I don’t want to have to go in there.”
“What?” I accidentally beam my flashlight right in Luella’s blue eyes, makin’ her blink. “Sorry.”
Henry holds out that old lantern he’s been carrying, the firelight flashin’ in his smilin’ brown eyes. “Either fish or cut bait, Ada Mae.”
I stare at that flame, then click off my flashlight and shove it in my pocket.
Luella whimpers. “Ada…”
I snatch the lantern from Henry’s hand. “I still ain’t scared of no preacher.”
I stomp into those woods, my courage drivin’ me until I’m a few paces in and realize Luella really didn’t come. Lord have mercy, Lu… But I don’t look back. I can’t look back. Not now.
I nervously tuck a lock of my frizzy brown hair behind my ear. I can almost hear Vivi scoldin’ me already. “Ada, why’d you go and let Billie Jo and Henry make you do that for? You know Ma says they’re the biggest hooligans in all of Willow Creek High.” Well it’s them hooligans who run that high school, and I ain’t about to start my freshman year with those two big mouths tellin’ everyone I’m afraid of some ol’ghost story, like some little baby.
A stick snaps in the forest.
Crap. Holy fricken’ heck.
(My mamma says I’m not old enough yet to swear proper-like.)
I hold that lantern out before me, makin’ sure the eerie glow dances in those distant shadows. I’m not sure what a demon looks like, but I think maybe it might look like that strange shape, shiftin’ in the leaves over there.
I bolt. Not back to Luella and Billie Jo and Henry but deeper into the forest. Demon or not, I’m makin’ it to that church, and I’m gonna hang this lantern off the steeple just like Henry dared me to. But I still ain’t crazy, I ain’t gonna wander around in some forest if there’s demons about.
And then I see the church. I stop right quick, my feet slidin’ on the red dirt. I swallow, and clench that lantern tighter to keep my shakin’ hand from droppin’ it. It’s a creepy church alright. I think I can hear the wind, moanin’ and whistlin’, as it breezes though the windows which sit open, blacker than the night sky. The steeple is about the only thing standin’ right, a lone tall and strong tower risin’ in front of bucklin’ walls. There’s no door left, just a gappin’ hole in the base of the square, triangle-tipped steeple.
And that’s where I got to go.
I let out my breath, shiverin’ as the sweat tricklin’ down my back suddenly feels cold. Maybe Luella was right. Maybe I didn’t have to–
I scream and jump back, holdin’ my lantern up before me like it’s some sort of weapon. There’s a man standin’ in that open doorway, I can just see his shape in the darkness.
“Who are you?” I demand, doin’ my very best to sound tough and make up for that scream.
The man steps out of the shadows, the moonlight glowin’ silver around the edges of his silhouette. He looks down at me with a big, bright Sunday-greeter smile. “Don’t you know? This is my church.”
I flinch. The preacher. He’s even got that official black shirt and little white collar.
Now I ain’t no baby who goes around believin’ in ghost stories, but I know what I’m seein’ and I know ghosts don’t look like men. They look like bed sheets, or creepy clowns, or–
“Have you come for the service?” the preacher continues.
I frown. It ain’t Sunday.
He smiles. “That’s alright, all are welcome here.” He nods to the forest behind me. “I heard voices, before. Your friends were not brave enough to follow you?”
“They dared-” I start, and then realize I’m strikin’ up a conversation with some stranger. My Mama taught me better than that.
The preacher nods, all friendly-like, as though he knows what I was gonna say. “I did think that one boy looked a little too high-and-mighty to be a companion of yours. Come on, I won’t stop you.” He steps to the side of the doorway to the steeple. “Those bullies need put in their place.”
I glance down at my lantern. The preacher’s gonna help me?
He beckons to me with his hand. “Come in, there are dangerous things outside.”
I steal a glance over my shoulder. There are dangerous things inside, too. But then I see that shape again, movin’ slowly between the trees. It might be a deer, or a coon dog, or a man but now I see it’s got red eyes.
And ain’t none of those things’ve got red eyes.
I take a step towards that preacher and his creepy church. There are lots of shapes in the forest, all of them shiftin’ shadows that dance in the moonlight and watch me with their blood red eyes. Demons.
I turn back to that steeple doorway. The preacher smiles at me again, his eyes twinklin a silvery-blue like twilight. His eyes look so much more friendly than those demons’, and I did come to climb that steeple…
I follow him inside.
The moonlight doesn’t reach inside the shadows of the steeple but I still have my lantern. Scraggly vines entangle the charred woodwork and hang down to scratch at my face and shoulders, and dry leaves crunch under my feet. I keep lookin’ back to watch those demons in the forest but the preacher strides forward, hummin’ Amazin’ Grace, without even glancin’ at me.
“So mister,” I pipe up. “Why’d you burn down your church?”
The preacher stops hummin’, the final lines of that song echoin’ dully in the fire-lit darkness, and then he laughs. “Whatever do you mean, child? My church is thriving.”
I freeze at the threshold between the steeple entrance and the main hall. Ghost or not, this preacher is crazy. “Mister, look.” I point to the patch in the roof I can see the moon through. “Your church is fallin’ apart.”
The preacher grins at me, as bright and big as ever. “John 12:35. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you.”
He lunges and tries to snatch my lantern.
“Hey!” I shout, jumpin’ back out of his reach. Preacher or not, he ain’t gonna be stealin’ my things. I give him some of my real cursin’. “What in the Sam hill-”
He laughs again, and then grabs hold of me. His grip is strong and tears sting my eyes as he tightens his fingers around my arm — but I ain’t about to be done in by some ghost. I smash my lantern in his face. The glass shatters, splatterin’ the preacher in burnin’ oil.
The preacher howls and stumbles back, throwin’ me to the ground. I scramble to my feet.
That lantern fire continues to burn, and the preacher continues to scream — but his face begins to change. He ain’t smilin’ no more. His arms shrink, his chest grows, and his face stretches until he’s some ghostly beast, towerin’ over me, with swirlin’ smoke for legs and red fire for a head.
I scream — not even ashamed this time — and run for the steeple staircase beside me. I leap up those stairs, stumblin’ over half of them since they’re so old and crooked, but that demon-preacher follows at my heels. I reach the bell tower, and stop by the frame of the tear-drop window that’s taller than me. The moon lights up the forest beyond the church, and I don’t see no demons out there this time.
But there’s still that demon behind me.
He pauses at the top of the stairs, his arms flailin’ like some vengeful spirit’s gone and possessed one of those inflatable things at the car dealership. “Proverbs 23. Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.” The wind whistles through the holes in the wall behind him, carryin’ to my nose the stench of rotten eggs and I gag. “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
“Get back!” I scream, but of course he don’t listen. I creep away, until my back hits the frame of that window. I fumble for any sort of weapon, but only come up with the flashlight I shoved in my pocket. With shakin’ hands, I click it on and put the beam on his chest. “Get back!”
The demon laughs, the same laugh as that preacher, but it echoes in the haul of that old church. He lunges for me again, the whole room flairin’ in fire, and I jump back. A dark figure falls from the shadows above. It’s a man, and he has — he has a pistol, one of those old-timey ones, like a cowboy.
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The figure’s voice echoes in the demon’s fire. “They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light dawned.”
The shadow stranger fires one shot from his pistol, and nails the demon right between the eyes. Fire flares in the tower, throwin’ me backwards, and all I can smell is gunpowder. My heel catches on the low windowsill and I fall out of the bell tower.
I clench my eyes shut; I scream. The demon screams, and then a hand latches onto my arm.
Gaspin’, I open my eyes. It’s dark now — there’s no fire, only moonlight. I’m standin’ in the windowsill of that bell tower, but I’m not alone.
“You shouldn’t have come here.”
I yipe, and try to pull my hand out of the iron grip on my arm but I can’t. It’s a man – it’s another preacher, his face is shadows but his white collar glows blue in the moonlight.
“Demon! Get back! I-” my foot slips, and for a moment I’m fallin’ out the windowsill again.”
“Woah there,” the shadow preacher chuckles, his grip still solid on my wrist. He drags me back into the tower. “You can’t go that way, not yet.”
Pantin’, I rip my arm out of his hand and fix my glare on him. The moonlight falls on his face, but his silhouette don’t glow and his eyes don’t twinkle. He’s not even givin’ me a smile — Sunday-greeter or otherwise. In fact he’s downright ugly, with a nasty burn scar muckin’ up half his face.
“So,” I say, findin’ my voice. “You’re the one who burned this church down.”
“No.” He glances up at the charred vines tangled above the window. “No, but I did my best to fight the flames.”
I study him, and he studies me right back.
“Are you a demon?”
He shakes his head.
He shakes his head again, but more slowly this time.
I hesitate. It’s been some time since Gramma managed to make me go to Sunday school, but I don’t think them teachers told me anythin’ about this. “Well, that demon looked just like you.”
The shadow preacher smirks, a look that reminds me a lot more of Billie Jo’s sneer than that other demon’s smile. “And you think a smile and a collar and the remembering of a few bible verses makes a man a preacher?”
I glance down at my old tennis shoes. “Doesn’t it?”
The man shrugs. “I suppose it should. But even Satan quotes scripture, and even demons recognize Jesus Christ as the son of God.”
I glance up. There’s a sadness in the preacher’s eyes as he studies the distant horizon.
“Is there somethin’ you wanted, mister?”
He kneels down in front of me, and I think I can see a hint of a smile in his eyes. “You don’t have to stay much longer, Ada, but I ask that you remember two things.”
I give him my real curious look, like the one I give Luella when all she wants to talk about is boys, because somehow this shadow-man knows my name.
“The first is, don’t let those older kids egg you on anymore. You’ve got nothing you need to prove. They’ll only get you into more trouble from here on out, and I won’t be able to catch you next time. I’m only charged to protect this little part of the world and you’re not ready for this fight yet.”
“The preacher’s woods,” I mumble.
His smile widens. “That’s right.” It’s a fine smile, the kind my Pa gets when he’s thinkin’ real hard. “And the second is, you ask your grandmother about second timothy.”
I nod, mutely.
He looks over my face, then smooths back my hair before risin’ to his feet.
“Mister, where are you goin’?”
His figure gets all blurry. “I’m not going. I’ll be here as long as my Lord commands me.”
And then everythin’ blurs into shadow and fire. I’m fallin’ — I can feel the wind rushin’ past me. I go to scream, but then my eyes open and I’m already on the ground and the fire is far away.
A hand smooths back my hair. “Oh, Ada.” It’s Vivi, kneelin’ at my side in the grass. She gives me a quick hug, then holds me in her arms like I’m some little kid. “Ada, why’d you go and let Billie Jo and Henry make you-”
“I know,” I mutter, and try to wriggle out of her grip, but then I notice my head’s hurtin’ somethin’ fierce. And that fire — the creepy church is on fire. Me and Vivi are sittin’ in the grass by the trees, far away from the steeple. “Vivi, there’s demons in them woods-”
“Shh.” She puts a hand on my head and pulls me close. “You’re just lucky Luella came and got me and Gramma. What happened, anyway? We saw the fire and came running, but found you beneath the steeple, out cold.”
How do I explain? Vivi wouldn’t understand. I don’t understand.
A siren wines, takin’ over the soft sounds of the forest and the roar of the flames, and the trees flash white and red. Big men in big boots stomp over and pull me out of Vivi’s grip. They keep askin’ me questions and I keep tellin’ them I’m fine, and I just watch as the dark water from the hoses puts out the fire on that old church.
I wonder if the shadow preacher is still in there. I wonder what he’s still fightin’.
“Ada Mae!” Gramma comes over and chases those firemen away. She pulls me close and smothers me in a hug.
“Ah!” I wince as her girth squashes my arm. Gramma pulls back, and I look down at my wrist. There’s a burn mark, about the size and shape of a hand, right where the preacher caught me and kept me from fallin’ through the window.
Gramma draws in a deep breath and gently runs her hand over my arm. “So he’s still here, is he?”
“Second Timothy,” I mumble.
Gramma holds my gaze, then smiles. “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceivin’, and bein’ deceived. But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowin’ of whom thou hast learned them. And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
I nod, slowly. “What does it mean?”
“What do you think it means?”