Dani sat curled under a fuzzy teal blanket on her couch. Cottony flakes of snow cascaded from the gray sky outside her bay window, and a fire crackled as it attempted to live on, despite that only embers and charred kindling remained. Dani ran her hands along a tie-dye colored stuffed snake. Its vibrant neon purples and oranges and yellows nearly dulled the brilliant glow of flames emanating from the sooty fireplace.
The lines of grief on Dani’s face vibrated and flooded, like a tributary, as she stroked the toy. She closed her eyes—a man-made dam—but found neither her eyelids nor her will were strong enough to protect her from the memory of Jameson.
Nearly one year ago the boy had been stuffed in flannel underwear and a bright red down jacket—had complained his friend’s mothers didn’t make them dress in such a ridiculous way. But he had also gone sled riding, participated in snowball fights, and built igloos. Dani had piled extra marshmallow foam into an ancient Garfield mug.
Thick, raspy coughs had woken Dani up that night. Fever. Chills. “The boy has the flu, nothing to worry about.” Dr. Patton had smiled and patted Jameson’s head. Except that the flu had turned into pneumonia, and the pneumonia to sepsis, and by the time Dani had understood that there was everything to worry about, she had been captured in a tornado of florescent lights, and I.V. injections, and admittance forms. Twenty-four hours later, Dani had Jameson’s personal belongings in a plastic bag with Mercy Hospital’s blue logo on the side.
“An epidemic,” the national news anchor had called it. Thirteen-hundred hospitalized across the country with flu that had progressed past the threshold of antiviral drugs. Jameson was a casualty—a statistic. Jameson was simply one of the two-hundred thirty unfortunate souls who had died from complications.
A loud, high-pitched whistle blew from a dainty hand-painted tea pot on the stove. Dani attempted a weak smile across the table at Amber, and Dani’s chair skidded across the yellowed linoleum in the kitchen. Dani hurried to prepare the tea she had promised but would sooner toss in the trash bin.
“Is that the Earl Grey?” Amber asked.
“No. It’s a new one. Raspberry something-or-other.”
“Good,” Amber said flipping through her phone, “the Earl Grey has been giving me heart burn.”
“With a fruit tea?” Amber asked.
“Right,” Dani said as she rubbed her face. She picked up the tea pot and the cups and carried them to the table. “Sorry. My mind is somewhere else.”
“Almost a year, right?”
“Dani, won’t you please think about it?”
“About what?” Dani asked as she scooped sugar into her flowered tea cup. Fruity steam wafted into her face and reminded her of a more pleasant season.
“Come to my church with me. Look.” Amber shoved her phone into Dani’s line of sight. A big bright photo of a jumbotron with a handsome brown-haired man stared back at Dani. He had piercing, emerald green eyes. “See how fancy it is? Now, I know it’s big,” Amber flipped through more photos. There were long rows of seats with red satin covers, all of them were filled. A photo showed a choir with at least two-hundred members—hands high in the air in praise and worship. The last photo must have been taken from some long angle. It revealed that the structure was round, topped with a lid that rivaled Florence’s Duomo. It was a mega-church, “But don’t let the size put you off. Everyone is just great. Reverend Luke is just the best.”
Dani sighed, “Not interested.”
“Come on, Dani. It would be good for you.”
“Amber, you know I just don’t subscribe to all that Christian mumbo-jumbo. No amount of prayer is going to bring Jamey back.”
“And no one is going to suggest that it will,” Amber said as she placed her hand on Dani’s. Dani pulled her frigid hand away. “It’s not like we’re Catholic,” Amber laughed. “Reverend Luke won’t ask you to kneel.”
Dani shook her head. Combined with the steam from her raspberry tea the whole gesture looked like a B-rated movie effect. “Methodist, Lutheran—Mormon. It’s all the same. And if it’s all the same, Amber, I don’t want to go.”
“Look,” Amber averted her eyes—gazed into her tea as if she could see the future in the bright red liquid, “you’ll come because it would do you good to socialize. The people are friendly. If nothing else, ignore the sermon and the prayers, and just enjoy the view of the Poconos through the windows.” Amber lifted her head and stared into Dani’s gray eyes—her own half-lidded, lazy, but searing intent into Dani’s brain. Amber didn’t blink.
“Fine.” Dani blinked and nodded.
“Pick you up Thursday at seven.”
“Oh no,” Amber said scooting out from the table, “we don’t meet on Sundays.”
A subzero wind, and hot flakes of white snow that glistened in the glow of the street lights, enveloped Dani as she thrust herself into Amber’s black SUV. Dani shivered and put her hands up to the vents. The air rushed from them like a tropical wind. “It’s colder than Hell out there,” Dani shouted over some whiney pop band.
“Hell isn’t cold,” Amber said and grimaced.
“What? It’s just an expression.”
The inside of the stadium-like mega-church was dank and musty, like a gargantuan mausoleum. Bodies moved like waves, colliding and parting in every direction. A sixty-foot LED screen hovered over a black carpeted stage—a golden isle runner led to a glistening gold carpet that melted into the gaping blackness. Sharp, detailed candelabras were placed in an odd zig-zagging pattern around the stage. A pedestal adorned by glowing red candles and cascades of white roses and lilies spilled from the tower and onto the floor.
An old man insisted on removing Dani’s peacoat. Women with tight buns smiled too broadly as they greeted Dani and flung their arms open like wings—showing her the direction she should travel in.
“I’m with her,” Dani mumbled, keeping her head down. Her stomach was a capsized vessel—lurching and taking on water. It had begun to descend into the recesses of Dani’s guts, reminding her she was out of place—alone, when Amber clutched Dani’s shoulder.
“Let’s sit up front. There are a couple of seats in the sixth row,” Amber said standing on her tiptoes.
“I’d rather not. Can we stay up here in the nose bleeds. I’d like to keep my distance.”
“Spoil sport,” Amber huffed. “Compromise? Lower section, but in the back.”
“Fine.” Dani realized she had been using that word a lot lately. She was always just—fine. Coming here had been fine, even though she had said no. Sitting closer than made her comfortable would be fine as well, she supposed.
The giant dome roared with voices—clatter—until sparkly music popped over the PA system. The conversations snapped to a halt. The lights dimmed. A white orb shone on the stage, danced and revolved around an unseen target, and then Reverend Lucas was inside, dazzling, like the holy grail. The crowd applauded and cheered.
“Now, now. All you calm on down now. It’s just little old me, you’re friend and partner in the hunt for truth and glory, Reverend Lucas.” He spoke with a southern drawl so smooth and thick it was like freshly churned butter, and you might have needed milk to wash it down, because the whole charade was entirely too sweet. “Where have you all been this week?”
“Lost!” The word echoed out from every capable pair of lips in the arena. It wasn’t a cheer or an answer or a lament—it was a chant. “Lost, Lost, Lost,” the whole congregation repeated.
Reverend Lucas threw his arms up and crossed them—a motion to tell his parishioners to cease. “I know ya were,” he hung his head low, “but that makes it all the more miraculous that ya found your way here. It’s nearly impossible to see through the darkness at times, but rest assured, I’m here. I’ll always be here, friends. Watching, waiting to save you, just like He did for me.”
The audience broke into uproarious applause. They cheered and sobbed and wailed for their losses and joy and their souls—ripe for salvation. Dani sat watching, stiff as a board, uncomfortable with the concept of a man preaching his supernatural ability to wipe away tarnish and decay from a mortal body. The wide-open walls were beginning to inch closer, and Dani could feel her breath catch, like a fishhook, in her throat.
“I have to go,” Dani whispered to Amber. “Can you take me home?”
“What? We haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.”
“What do you mean ‘good part’?”
“The prayer,” Amanda said. “Just look at him. So handsome.”
“He looks like a weasel,” Dani said.
Amber shot her a death-ray glare.
“Now, my babies, I know you have brought me your friends, relatives, co-workers, children. Those who have suffered. Those in your lives who are trudging through the fog of fear and doubt.” Reverend Lucas descended the long stairs into the waiting parishioners now. They hung on his every word with baited breath—clutching their chests, leaning in, begging for his touch. “Rise and come to me. We will pray for change together, and you will be anointed anew in His mighty name!”
Congregants began to lift themselves gingerly from their chairs. Dani watched, her eyes widening, as they hobbled to Reverend Lucas with their eyes looking at the floor. The reverend placed his palm upon their forehead, they twitched manically, went limp, and sprang to life hugging and thanking him as he kissed their cheeks.
“I gotta get away from Pastor Psycho.” Dani said grabbing her purse.
“Reverend Lucas,” Amber said coldly.
“Whatever. Why would you bring me here?”
“Because Dani,” Amber began to yell, “you’re exactly what he described. Lost in a sea of darkness. Troubled. You need a damn light and if Reverend Lucas isn’t one, well, then, call me crazy!”
“What do we have here?” the reverend had appeared next to the two women. His smooth voice was so frozen you could have strapped on blades and skated on it. “Amber, everything alright?”
Amber looked at the floor, “Yes, Reverend. Dani was just asking me to take her home.”
“Now, why ever would you want to do that? Child, we haven’t prayed together yet.”
“I’d rather not,” Dani said. “I’m not interested.”
“Not interested in relief? You are hurtin’. The death of your son—” Dani attempted to interrupt him. “—No Amber has not mentioned you. The death of your son is weighing on you. Come, pray with me. If you don’t feel better after—you can go.” He held out is well-moisturized hand to Dani.
Dani closed her eyes. They felt as if they were being stung by one-thousand bees—hot pinpricks caused them to tear up. She put her hand in the reverend’s and followed him to the stage.
Dani stood facing the man. Her black ballet flats sunk into the gold carpet. His green eyes hollowing out her cranium. His palm slapped against her forehead and Dani began to relive Jameson’s death. Then, she went deeper. Dani floated down a long black tunnel set aglow by rotting hearth embers. It smelled like a freshly snuffed cigar. The tunnel twisted and turned, like a never-ending playground sliding board. Dani landed in a puddle of sewage and green ooze. Tarry ruby blood intermingled in the hideous mixture. Teeth and bones and leather-like flesh floated, like newspaper ships around the tiny fluid body. Dani felt warm, tingly—fine.
When Dani opened her eyes, a gray curtain sheathed the mega-church—Reverend Lucas. His eyes were red now—hers were black—she could see them reflected in his. “Carry on, now,” Reverend Lucas whispered, his words melted in her ear. Dani returned to her seat.
On the stage, Reverend Lucas closed the service, “And when you pray, pray then like this—Our Father who aren’t in heaven. Damned be his name—”
#HumpdayHorror #Contagion Copyright 2018 Kira McKinney
Welcome to my blog. Sit back and enjoy a short story, a poem, or some flash fiction--whatever I have recently cooked up. I will post a new piece as often as possible. Check back once a week to see what's new.