Edit: 8/9 – Fixed formatting issues, and a bunch of spelling errors.
They call themselves The Church of the Kingdom of Resurrection.
That’s the story going around town, anyway.
Truth be told, nobody knows much about the so-called Kingdom.
But I can tell you what we do know.
First, we know that “The Kingdom” is a highly secretive organization – members only. And membership is, naturally, invitation only.
Since – inexplicably, I might add – I have not been invited yet, I can’t provide any first-hand information on the invitations, or the process involved with choosing potential candidates. There are rumors, of course – there are always rumors. Invitations made of skin, that magically appear on the chosen ones doorsteps, something about how members who attempt to cancel their membership end up cancelled themselves… so on and so forth.
Second, we don’t actually know where the Church itself came from. I know I said we’d only be listing things we did know, but I think it’s worth noting that the Church just sort of appeared, seemingly overnight. Certainly, it was nothing more than an empty lot before.
Sand and rocks. Rocks and sand. Maybe some scorpions.
Nobody I’ve spoken to remembers any builders, any noise, anything at all, except that once there was an empty lot, and now there is a church.
Which is weird, right?
You’d think people would remember a big construction project like a church.
But nobody does.
Anyway, third on my list of alleged facts… ah, Bella Goth. While it seems that an entire town forgot about a building being, well, built, we can be certain that nobody here could ever forget the mysterious case of Bella Goth.
Especially now, with the noticeable increase in “Bella Sightings”. My inbox is packed with emails from listeners, all of which assure me that they’ve seen the lady in red pacing the church grounds. Some of you even included some remarkably blurry photographic “evidence”. The one good picture I received was, incidentally, a close-up of a cantalope. What that had to do with Bella Goth is anyone’s guess, but it certainly looked delicious.
While it remains to be seen whether or not Bella Goth – last seen several years ago being forcibly abducted by aliens and/or her future son-in-law in the picturesque suburb of Pleasantview – is now a member of the highly exclusive Church of the Kingdom of Resurrection, I will encourage you to continue sending me your stories and theories.
After all, you just never know when you’re going to find that elusive sweet spot between myth and fact. Personally, I believe…
He slammed the plates down on the table, perhaps a little harder than he’d intended.
“Food’s up,” he said, his voice a forceful recreation of good cheer. “Mind if I turn this off while we’re eating? Kind of ruins my appetite…”
Slowly, her eyes came up from the table and found their way to his own. Same shade of green, but twice as sad and tired.
“You used to like listening to it,” she said, still with those bright curious eyes, but he can see now that the light has dimmed.
“Yeah, well, now I don’t.” He pushed the pause button on the pink mp3 player, a final gift from their father, resisted the urge to chuck it out the window into the desert, and instead began shoveling wet, glistening slabs of egg into his mouth. Be quiet, he wills her. Eat, and be quiet.
“Don’t you believe in anything anymore?”
She looked so sad and young.
“Of course I do,” he lied. It’s so much easier to lie. “But I don’t believe in any goofy conspiracy about some rundown old church, or werewolves, or Big Foot, or ‘Plantsims’, or whatever else Ripp is currently obsessed with.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Believing? I just told you, I still believe, I just –”
“Why did you stop being friends?”
I didn’t mean to.
He doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say anything.
There is nothing to say.
He stood up, gathered his plate, crumpled his unused napkin. “I have to go to work,” he says. I have to get out of here. I have to get away from this, from you. I love you too much for you to make me this sad. “I have so much to do if I want that promotion.”
Jill just looked away.
* * *
Sometimes when he leaves the house, he thinks about not coming back.
It would be… so easy.
She would go back to Jenny, and they would be okay.
He would go wherever.
He would disappear.
It would be okay.
“I’m leaving now,” he says.
She doesn’t say goodbye.
She doesn’t say “I love you.”
She sits at the table and she doesn’t say anything.
“Goodbye,” he says. “I love you.”
She looks out the window, and she doesn’t say anything.
The mp3 player is on again. Ripp is reading her a story.
Something about a boy and his dead dog.
The elevator doesn’t ding anymore. Sometimes it doesn’t come up. Sometimes it doesn’t go down.
He could complain. Somebody somewhere owns this building. He could cause problems. He paid his rent on time. The least he deserved was a reliable elevator.
He could burn the entire building to the ground.
But he’ll just go to work instead.
The elevator shrieks when it descends.
In his head, he screams along.
In his mouth, he rolls his teeth across his tongue.
The elevator goes lower.
Outside is quiet.
Outside is always quiet.
Except for when it is screaming.
But that is for later.
For now, it is quiet.
Except for Chloe.
“Go home, Chloe.”
Chloe laughs louder, swings higher, kicks her legs harder, and if he were looking, he would see up her skirt, but he doesn’t look, not at her. “Quit bustin’ my balls, Johnny.”
“Go home, Chloe,” he repeated, without conviction. “Get some sleep.”
“Sleep is for the weak, my friend.”
“What does that even mean?”
She laughs and kicks and swings, and the ancient rusty chains that keep her suspended in air shriek and wail. “Some day, Johnny, when you’re as drunk as I am, you’ll understand.”
He wonders if he could even survive that much alcohol.
* * *
Gray clouds stretch across the sky, dirty-white and diseased.
Smoke curls up from the red-orange tip of a cigarette and drifts up to join the infection.
Up on the rooftop, Ripp watches Johnny walk away.
It’s not easy. Watching in silence as the distance between them grows and grows. Keeping his mouth shut until Johnny rounds the corner and disappears.
Never in a million years could he have anticipated that it would come to this. Even now, he didn’t fully understand where things had gone wrong.
Only that they had.
Only that there was no way to fix them.
“Nothing is beyond repair, Ripp.”
He lit another cigarette.
“The least you could do is try.”
Erin was so annoying sometimes. She was so nice to be around when she was quiet. If only she could be quiet forever.
“Johnny Smith is the least of my worries right now,” he lied. “This whole town is so fucked.”
Ripp abandoned the ledge, his cigarettes, his view of Chloe’s legs as they flew up into the air, propelling her closer to him, then pushing her further away.
“The problem is,” he said, kneeling in front of Erin so that he could look her in the eye. “We’re used to it. We’re born here, it’s life for us. We don’t question it. We don’t even think about it.”
“What are you talking about, Ripp?”
“There’s a girl in my brother’s class who won’t stop crying.”
“That’s high school,” Erin responds.
“It’s been going on for four months, and he’s never seen her face.”
“Has he even tried?” She asks, more to tease him than to bicker. “Tapped her on the shoulder? Asked her for her name? Offered her a kleenex?”
Ripp shrugged, undeterred. “He doesn’t know if she’s real, or not.”
That earned him a raised eyebrow, a quirk at the corner of her mouth. “What on earth gives him the impression that she isn’t?”
Ripp smiled triumphantly. “Nobody else seems to notice her. Four months of her non-stop crying at the back of the room, and even his teacher seems completely oblivious.”
“Have you met Vidcund?” Oblivious would be giving him too much credit; the girl could be perched on the top of his head, screaming like a pterodactyl and laying eggs in his hair, and he wouldn’t pay her any mind.
Personally, Erin believed he simply wasn’t interested in human interaction.
Which made teaching an odd professional choice, but who was she to judge?
“I don’t know why you insist on arguing with me,” Ripp said, picking at a tiny hole in his jeans. “We both know you haven’t got a skeptical bone in your body.”
“It’s sad, is all. Buck should try to comfort her.”
“Ordinarily, I would agree. But if horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that no good can come of finding out what lurks behind the hair curtain. He taps her on the shoulder, holds out a tissue, she turns around, and oh, shit! Her face is a slobbering pit of teeth.”
“You watch too many movies.”
“Maybe. But the fact remains, Buck is 100% less likely to be torn apart or eaten alive if he just leaves her alone.”
“Leaves who alone?”
Ripp looked up, startled. He’d been so involved in his story that he hadn’t heard the elevator.
“Jill,” he said, delighted. He’d been hoping she’d come find him. “You’re just in time for tea.” He beckoned to the blanket he’d spread out for himself and Erin. “Hot, bitter, and virtually undrinkable. I ruined it myself.”
Jill took a seat on the blanket, declining the steaming cup that Ripp had offered. “Hello, Erin.”
Erin turned her head slightly, not quite meeting Jill’s eyes. “It’s good to see you, again, Jill. Ripp was just telling me about how fucked this town is.”
“Weren’t you, Ripp?”
“He’s not wrong,” Jill said, quietly. Something in her voice made Erin shiver.
Or maybe it was just the weather.
Strangetown was so cold lately.
So unnaturally cold.
* * *
The hospital is so brightly lit that it’s hard to see sometimes.
The night shift shuffles silently through the halls, shielding their eyes against the piercing burning bright and replace light bulbs, sheets, diapers, and each other.
They don’t look in the dark corners where the light doesn’t reach, but they don’t have to.
They can hear the growling. They can hear the click-scrape-click of long pointed nails, the tell-tale swishing of skin that only seemed to get louder and more insistent.
Especially in Room 2010.
Ophelia didn’t dislike Room 2010; it was a quiet room, cold and white and sterile, just like all the others the hospital had to offer.
She didn’t dislike the patient – on the contrary, she had once been very fond of the person they now referred to as Patient X.
He had been a good man. It hurt her deeply to see what had become of him. Every time she entered the room, she wished fervently that he would be granted the peace and dignity of death, but always he remained suspended in this terrible limbo.
He was a prisoner within the hospital; within himself.
And that made her uneasy.
She didn’t have time to contemplate this. She had barely changed the IV bags when the lights began to flicker and dim.
And went out.
The flashlight Jenny had given her on her first night felt like a child’s toy in her shaking hands. The beam of light seemed cruelly inefficient as it struggled to cut through the darkness.
That ever-present threat.
There is no answer, only silence, only
An explosion of hot breath on her face and she can almost see IT, a demonic shadow finally freed from its confinement to the corners and the edges, and she
She lifted her face to the light as tears filled her eyes.
Patient X was undisturbed, still quietly breathing in time with the machine that controlled his lungs. He remained blissfully unaware of his previous visitor.
She sank heavily onto the bed at his feet, and began to cry.
* * *
“I don’t think I can do this, Jenny.”
Jenny shut the door gently behind her. She was not surprised, not really. Nightshift at the hospital was not for the soft-hearted, but Ophelia had begged her for this job.
She pulled a seat up beside Ophelia and settled down, ready to comfort Ophelia, and hopefully, tender her resignation.
“What happened, honey?”
“The lights went out,” Ophelia said, rubbing her eyes. “In Room 2010.”
“It almost got me.”
* * *
“You decent, Smith?” “Define decent,” he said, slamming the locker shut. Imagined it closing on Picaso’s head. Saw his pain-in-the-ass partner go limp, slither to the floor, lying unmoving at his feet as blood pooled in the corners of his eyes.He shook his head, tried to clear away theurgesthoughts that rose in him like bile.
“We have a visitor,” Matthew explained, his voice straining to convey conspiratorial, but landing squarely on asinine.
He didn’t know why he hated Matthew.
Matthew Picaso, with his Goodboy Grunt hair, and excessive “manscaping”, and eager disposition, so desperate for Johnny to like him.
Finally, having run out of plausible stall tactics, Johnny turned to face him.
“Well,” Picaso drawled. “She’s…”
Immediately, Johnny’s rage subsided.
Lola had always had that effect on him.
“Lola,” he said. “What brings you down here?”
Lola crossed her arms. “Chloe.”
Johnny sighed, thinking of his earlier encounter with Chloe. “What’s she done now?”
Lola shook her head wearily. “She hasn’t done anything. Yet.”
Johnny cocked his head, amused. “Are you at the point now where you just anticipate it?”
Lola didn’t smile. “She got an invitation.”
Johnny felt the grin slip off his mouth.
“Please tell me it’s for a birthday party.”
“Would I be down here if it was something that benign?”
Johnny shook his head, feeling sick inside. “When did she get it?”
“Last night. Well after the mail stopped running. Not that the post office was likely to be involved to begin with, with the Kingdom’s penchant for secrecy.”
“So, this was hand delivered.”
Lola nodded. “We found it on the kitchen table.”
“They were in your house?” He could hardly believe such brazen tactics.
Lola nodded, again. “Nothing was taken. There was no sign of forced entry. Just the envelope on the table.”
“The home invasion aspect isn’t even the worst part, John.” She lowered her voice, speaking just above a whisper. “The invitation… it was warm, and it smelled like perfume. Not quite like Glabe’s, but close enough that when I first smelled it, I thought it was hers.”
“Exactly. And typically, the dead don’t send invitations to join weird cults.”
“Did you get one?”
Shaking her head, Lola replied, “Just Chloe.”
“Has she seen it yet?”
“I tried to get rid of it first. I tried to rip it up, but it… it bled when I tore it.”
“It bled? Actual blood?” He wasn’t quite disbelieving, simply astonished. Lola was one person he never questioned, and what little knowledge he’d been able to obtain regarding the Kingdom had gone a long way toward undermining his skepticism.
“That’s when Chloe came in, and saw what I was holding, and what I had done. Tried to do.” Her black eyes dulled. “Failed to do.”
“I need you to keep an eye on her, John. My team is being dispatched to Twikkii Island, so I won’t be here to watch her myself. I’m worried about what kind of mess she’ll manage to make of her life while I’m gone.”
“I’ll do the best I can, Lo. But you know your sister…”
“Yes. I know all too well how hard it can be to reason with the unreasonable. But I’ll feel more at ease knowing that you’re at least trying.”
“I’ll do everything I can, Lola.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate it.”
“Be careful. If they’re recruiting, then Chloe’s not the only one in danger.”
Lola excused herself then, leaving Johnny alone in the locker room to worry.
* * *
It was getting late. Loki still hadn’t called.
He used to be so reliable.
She hoped he was making progress in Pleasantview.Time was running out; if they didn’t find Bella soon, they would lose the small window of opportunity that had been afforded to them.If that happened, she would have to be destroyed. Everything, every sacrifice, every effort, would have been useless.
It was infuriating to think about.
She needed a drink to dull her thoughts.
She was suddenly very glad that Loki had had that nectar bar installed against her wishes.
Now she only wished that she weren’t home alone.
She was halfway through her second cup when she heard it.
The voice behind her was gentle, ponderous.
“You’ve been so careless lately, mother.” He said, and he sounded close, much too close. “I wonder what’s on your mind.”
“I would never hurt you, mother,” he said, softly.
“You scared the hell out of me, Nervous,” she cried, slamming her cup back down on the table behind her. She felt better with her hands free. “What are you doing down here?”
He shouldn’t be down here. She’d locked the door to his room.
“I would never hurt you, mother,” he repeated.
“But I think we need to talk.”
* * *
Do you remember what you told me the night that Dad died?
That you would never leave me?
I believed you, then. Did you believe me?
Because I know better, now.
In the end, though, I guess it doesn’t really matter which one of us lied.
I got an invitation, Johnny.
They’re going to take me away.