Story by N. Immanuel Velez
Illustration by Chlo’e Camonayan
I’m such a damn chicken. I’d promised I wouldn’t break, really thought I wouldn’t, and then I ran. Others might have done the same, but what I saw was what I’d come for, what I wanted. I wasn’t supposed to run. So here I was, frantically looking for a weapon, having just broken into my own house at three AM because I’d dropped my damn keys.
Blood was still dripping down my fingers from where I’d broken the kitchen window. I’d used a stone, but also used more force than necessary and small shards of glass had punctured my hand. That stung. It was while I was washing the cuts in the sink that I heard a noise at the front door. Was that a knock? Shit. They’re coming to get me, and I don’t even know who they are.
A knife at the edge of the table.
No, something that could break bone.
I rummaged through the closet in my bedroom, looking for a baseball bat, when another sound caught my attention. This time, the window. Was that a tap? I grabbed the bat and turned around, sweat flying from my hair. My heart raced, hands shook, and my stomach felt like it wanted to rip through my skin. They couldn’t be here. That was impossible. I’d let my mind get the better of me, which made me feel ashamed.
I never used to be like this. In fact, I could hardly remember ever being scared. When you don’t believe in anything, there’s not much to be afraid of. My father once told me that as a toddler I enjoyed the spooky stories he told me. Sometimes I would even laugh. Dark closets and thunderstorms meant nothing to me.
In grade school, a classmate thought he saw a ghost in the window of the attic, which caused quite a stir. But I walked up alone, found nothing, and waved at them through the glass. Crisis averted.
In high school, I was the brave prankster who strutted around in my bomber jacket, always the first to accept any dare. Not because I was the chump, but because it excited me. If I got caught, I got caught. That did not sit well with my father.
As an adult I took risks. Financial, romantic, and emotional risks. It made no sense to play it safe when you only live once. You’re born, you live, you die. I had never seen anything to the contrary, despite what my father used to say. And then his heart stopped.
Back in the kitchen, a half-empty bottle of dark rum found me, peeking from behind a bag of potatoes. It stared at me from the counter like an old friend. And maybe it could hold its own, give me peace of mind, calmness, offer another point of view that didn’t involve paranoia and uneasiness. I poured a glass and dropped in a few ice cubes. As I brought it to my mouth another sound startled me, the drink spilling down my hand and on to my shirt. The rum burned my cuts. A dog had barked from outside, amplified by the cracked window.
A balmy breeze glided in. I turned off the lights and looked out, crouching furtively. Heavy branches swayed, leaves rattling against each other until reaching a crescendo, then whispering as the wind died down. Insects chirped. A twig snapped. Is someone out there? No. It had to be the dog. Damn it, I really needed that drink.
I poured another glass and sat down on the sofa, sighing loudly as I hit the cushion. The rum burst into my brain, the buzz pulsating through my body, taking off the edge. I lit a cigarette and inhaled. My dad once said that if you found yourself amidst evil you should remove yourself immediately because it might follow you, attach to you, become a part of you. Like a spirit, it could possess you. I wondered if that’s what had happened just a few hours earlier. If something followed me home. Something malevolent. Maybe that’s what was lurking outside.
Nah., I didn’t believe in such things.
And it’s a good thing I didn’t. Because I still had to go back and get my keys.
— ♦♦♦ —
I had found my father on the floor of his living room. His death hit me like a skull on concrete. We had been planning to see The Wolfman just a few days later. Our last conversation revolved around the latest episode of Dark Fantasy, which we would hear every Friday night. He loved scary movies, books, and radio shows, and by default, so did I.
My dad wasn’t religious, but he certainly wasn’t a skeptic. The unexplainable mysteries of the world, the unanswered questions that had tugged on humanity since the beginning, they pulled on him in the same way, building the foundation for an open mind. They fueled his interest in the unknown, sparked an appetite for otherworldly possibilities. Whereas I viewed those stories with a touch of humor, he saw them with a sliver of hope for something more than the mundane.
He swore to me that he had seen many peculiar things throughout his lifetime. A cat sitting on the ledge outside a closed window that instantly appeared inside the room on the other side of the glass. He felt invisible hands tap his shoulder four times in a motel room he later found out was haunted. I always nodded, but inevitably never believed. I certainly didn’t think he was lying, but he must have misinterpreted each situation, and if I wasn’t there to verify it, I couldn’t believe it. I’d always say the same two words to him: “Prove it.”
One time he busted my chops about my cynicism.
“Robert, why are you so full of doubt? Don’t you want there to be something more after death? It doesn’t have to be God or the Devil, heaven or hell, just something. Anything.
“You know what my biggest fear is? That there is nothing after we die, absolutely nothing. Blackness. That this life, this insignificant lifespan, is all we have. How pointless everything would be. I would welcome hell if it meant that there’s something out there, a continuation of consciousness.”
And then I saw his face in the casket. Now he knew the answer, and I wondered if he was right. I touched his skin and it felt like leather. Was he there beneath my fingertips, beginning to rot and waste away? Or was he somewhere else, in another world, another reality? I wished that I could know so that at the very least I could be sure his greatest fear hadn’t been realized.
It had started one day when I stupidly ran out of fuel and had to walk to a gas station. Along the way, on the side of the road, a psychic named Madam Clora offered discounts on readings. Through the glass window, I could see written on white cardboard the promise to reveal my destiny, and the invitation to come in. It instantly reminded me of my father. I’m not fully sure why I walked in other than for remembrance of him, and for the slight possibility that she might know the answer to my wish. Of course, it took only minutes for me to realize she was a phony and only pretended to know what my dad would say in a conversation. I went along with the charade to be nice, paid the lady and left. Once again, the world couldn’t prove it to me.
I finally reached the Amaco and leaned against the skinny dispenser to fill my can, tired from the walk. I imagined another psychic in some far-flung corner of the world, maybe a place that hadn’t been touched by the war, someone who might actually be the real thing. And then I thought that if supernatural occurrences really do happen they must be exceedingly rare; and that the chances of me seeing one randomly, out of the billions of other people on this planet, would be slim to none. And that’s when it first hit me to seek out and find such things. Then maybe my wish would be granted, and my father would be justified.
So, this time I turned to the world, instead of my father, and said, “Prove it.”
I started with religion. I frequented many churches, both Protestant and Catholic, yet not once did I witness a miracle that didn’t have a rational explanation. I never once saw the type of healing described of in the bible.
I spoke to people who believed in witchcraft and Satanism, but they proved to be mostly fluff.
I went to alleged haunted places, graveyards, talked to others who swore they’d been possessed. All bullshit.
And then someone told me about Mabel’s Church.
— ♦♦♦ —
The last bit of ice clanged against the empty glass. My paranoia diminished as the rum worked through me. I put the cup down and squeezed the handle of the wooden bat with both hands. I felt like Joltin’ Joe himself. Away with the fear. It had to be rats. Yes, rats. Or other creatures of the night. How else could the bodies have moved? That place must have been teeming with rodents.
I jumped up and opened the front door. No knocks, no taps, no snapping twigs. Just quiet darkness. They weren’t coming for me. I thought about all the people confined to mental institutions, their minds prisoners of their own amplified fears and distorted perceptions. I wouldn’t go down that road.
I grabbed the knife from the kitchen despite my earlier refusal. After all, the church of death stood on private property.
— ♦♦♦ —
“If you really want to see something, go to Mabel’s Church. Have you heard of it? You might find what you’re looking for there.”
Not once in all the years I’d lived in Virginia, had I heard of Mabel’s Church, and yet it lurked right down the road. Route 50 cut through the district and went west for miles, all the way to West Virginia. I lived somewhat near it far from the capital, surrounded by broad fields, farms, and dirt roads. I had a few friends over one day and when I told James of my quest for proof he brought up the church.
“The story goes that during Civil War times a man named Thomas Abdell lived not too far from here. Maybe even walking distance if you like to walk. If you go down fifty past the Woolworth and hang a right at the big oak tree, go down about a mile and the estate is on the left. It’s easy to miss. You’ve probably driven by it a hundred times. A few overgrown trees block the entrance posts. There’s a long road that twists and turns through the woods until it reaches the house. And somewhere behind the house–not exactly sure, I’ve never been–is a barn.
“Now this man Thomas was a preacher, or I guess I should say, a self-proclaimed preacher. He had some issue with the local Methodist church, so he decided to start his own. He turned his barn into a chapel, making the pews and pulpit by hand using wood from his own land. Not many of the townspeople attended, save for his rather large family and a few good friends, yet every Sunday he held service, preaching what he thought was right. One of the parishioners was his young daughter Mabel.
“One day a squad of a dozen Confederate soldiers barged into his church during one of his sermons. They accused him of using his property as a point on the Underground Railroad, a connection between there and Harpers Ferry. He had no idea what they were talking about. While he denied it, a few members of his family got angry and tried to scare the troops into leaving. Things got out of hand and shots were fired. In the end, ten members of his family died, and one of them was Mabel. It’s said that Thomas blamed someone from the Methodist church for sparking the accusation as a way of getting revenge on him for leaving.
“He went mad. He’d loved Mabel more than anyone, even his own wife. All Thomas did was rave about the moments they’d had together, all the piggy-back rides and hide-and-go-seek games they’d played. The rest of his family and friends abandoned him as his sickness became stronger. But his wife, his wife stayed. Until he went completely off the deep end.
“She woke up one morning, about a month after the deaths, and found that Thomas wasn’t in bed. He wasn’t in the house. When she looked for him out of the window she saw the fresh dirt piled beside the graves where they’d buried the bodies in the family plot in the field out back. And she saw Thomas as he slipped inside the church, carrying a dark shape in his arms.
“They say the smell told her what was happening before she even opened the door. They were rotting, all of them, and the chapel was full of flies. Thomas had just finished seating Mabel in the front pew. They were all there, all in the very places they’d been when the soldiers came in. ‘You’ve made it in time for the service,’ he said to her.
“All she could do was run. As the story has it, she never went back, and eventually the few friends Thomas had stopped trying to talk him out of his madness. Apparently, the only way he could deal with the pain of losing his daughter, and the rest of his family, was to preach to them every Sunday as though the killings had never happened.
“Eventually he died, and his eldest son inherited the property, which by then was known only as Mabel’s Church. The Abdells still own it today.
“So, the story goes, and this is the mysterious part… actually, wait. Now you would think that after he died someone would’ve buried the bodies again, right? But supposedly, I’ve been a told a few times, the bodies are still there, in the same barn, all bones yet sitting upright, as if the family was too scared to ever enter the barn again. And some say that if you stay just a little bit; if you’re brave enough, the skeletons rise. No one has stayed long enough to see what happens after that, and not many people have even tried. They don’t exactly welcome visitors.
“Anyway, that’s the story. If you really want to see something strange, I suggest going there.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Two weeks after James told me about the church, I finished planning and prepping for my visit. I parked fifty feet from the estate’s entrance and dropped my fedora onto the passenger seat. I figured my black car would blend well with the night, but the white of my tires reflected more than I felt comfortable. So, I stuck a white shirt in the passenger window in case someone saw it. I brushed some of the vegetation off one of the posts and saw the Abdell name in the light of the bulbous full moon. And below that glowered a ‘No Trespassing’ sign. I continued toward the winding driveway, tall trees cradling it on either side, with nothing but a flashlight for protection. I kept telling myself I wouldn’t need anything else because I wasn’t trespassing. My car had broken down and I’d merely come for help. Yes, that would be my story.
I still flung myself to the ground behind a large tree when houselights sprung out. Taking a moment to recover my composure, I raised my head and saw that only one light shone from the estate, the second floor at the balcony. The trees dispersed beyond the one I hid behind, giving way to an open field and unkempt terrain. I could see what had to be the brooding barn to the left of the house, and slightly behind it.
My first thought was to make a break for it. Just sprint toward the barn. I scanned the house again, making sure there were no additional lights, and that I hadn’t missed anyone walking about. No one. So, I ran. I imagined rabid dogs flying to tear me apart, but luckily none appeared. The moon helped tremendously, and I felt lucky for that as well.
The front of the barn stood before me, a long board and lock keeping the doors shut. I jogged around the side, completely hidden from the house. Feeling more at ease, I took a long look at the barn and realized how dilapidated it was. There were empty spaces where strips of plywood once hung, spacious holes in the roof, and a gash at the bottom-left section of the wall where it looked as if a car had backed into it. Yes, that would be my entrance.
When I flashed my light I quickly saw the opening wasn’t as big as I’d thought. With some force, I pulled away a piece of hanging wood and slipped into the barn. Cracked timber beams and other debris surrounded me, and insects and worms crawled over the surfaces and slithered out of crevices. I pushed through the wreckage until I found myself standing before the pulpit and lectern. Their presence took me by surprise as I half-expected to see hay and pitchforks. I turned off the flashlight. The moon gleamed through the shabby roof. Behind everything, on the wall, hung a cross tilted on its side, looking as if even the slightest gust of wind would make it fall.
I was aiming for the pulpit when I tripped over a board rising from the floor like ragged, sharp wooden teeth splintered upward by some long-ago impact. When I hit the ground, several rats came shrieking out of the space beneath and scampered away.
After my heart slowed down I realized that if I were standing before the lectern, then behind me must be the pews.
I took a deep breath and turned around.
And there they were. Just like everyone said they’d be. Bodies sitting upright. Except they were covered with white, dusty sheets. I counted five of them. The one nearest to me sat in the front row, small and childlike. That must have been Mabel. I moved toward her, staring at her covered head, which seemed like it was facing straight at the tilted cross. The bright moon darkened, and I looked up to see wispy clouds scudding across it. When I looked back down Mabel’s concealed head was now directed at me. I jolted back.
Did that just happen?
The moonlight must have distorted the shadows. The head must have already been looking toward me. I turned to another body on the other side of the church, this one was definitely an adult. Its head looked at the pulpit. I made a mental note of it, and then quickly turned back to Mabel. I felt silly. She hadn’t budged. But when I went back to the adult, its head was pointed at me too. My eyes widened.
I know he was looking at the pulpit.
There was a body sitting further back I could have sworn just a second earlier was in the fifth row, not the fourth. I felt the hairs prickle on my arms.
What the hell is happening?
I tried to keep it together, but my heart pounded faster, and the goose bumps spread. I knew what I’d seen, but none of it made sense. It had to be my eyes, the devious moonlight, tricks of the shadows. I knew I wasn’t going insane, and I sure as hell knew it couldn’t really be… them.
A piece of wood creaked loudly somewhere within the church, and that was more than I could bear. I ran. I charged through the debris, flew through the opening, and across the field and trees until I reached my car–only to realize that my keys were no longer in my pocket. In my hysteria, I must have dropped them. I looked back at the dark, twisting road, thinking of them coming to get me, and once again I ran. The mile or so didn’t matter. I had to get home.
— ♦♦♦ —
Another shot of rum slid down my throat. I needed just enough to give me some courage, to keep that despicable fear away, and not a drop more. The buzz felt good, invincibility seeping through me, yet my faculties remained intact. Perfect.
I slipped my hand into my pocket, looking for a hole that wasn’t there. I always put my keys in my right, front pocket, and not once had I dropped them.
Doubt is what keeps the devil away. If the heads moved, then it must have been a couple of rats writhing within the skulls. The loud creak was just a structural beam threatening to collapse.
I needed my damn keys.
I gripped the bat firmly in my hands. The knife had my belt for a sheath. I had already recovered from the strenuous walk, and my legs were amped up and ready to go. It wouldn’t take more than an hour, and I’d be back before the sun came up.
— ♦♦♦ —
I breathed heavily, bent over, one hand against my car. My legs burned, and feet ached. The white shirt still held to the window, and the driveway, with its flanking trees, glared at me. The shadows cast by the moon resembled dark faces nailed to the bark. After a moment’s rest I walked past the posts, and down the winding road, bat still in one hand. I paused at the tree I had crouched behind earlier. The estate was still quiet.
I ran toward the church.
Its massive doors hypnotized me. Despite exuding a foreboding presence, it seemed peaceful, as if asking for forgiveness, inviting me back. I obliged. Slipping through the narrow entrance I’d taken advantage of on my first visit, I fought my way through the debris and found myself beneath the lectern again, the cross tilting. I ignored the bodies–I would deal with them later, once I had what I’d come for–and concentrated on sweeping my flashlight over the ground instead.
Nothing caught my attention in the bugs, dirt, and cobwebs that littered the surface until I saw a glimmer near the busted board I had tripped on. I hesitated before stooping down, wary of another cohort of rats exploding from the breach, but when I poured light into the hole, there were none. All gone. There was, however, the gleam of metal in the dust and debris. I put the light down and lay on my stomach. I reached my hand into the crevice, my head gracing the ground until I touched steel. My keys.
A loud creak came from nearby.
I pocketed my keys and grabbed the flashlight still lying on the ground. The light quivered with the shaking of my hand. I pulled back into a crouch, scrabbling for the bat with my free hand and ran the light along the bodies in the front pew. Skeletal feet jutted from beneath the white sheets, touching the ground. Panicked, for a moment I couldn’t remember how many of them there had been before. Then one of them stood up, and again the floorboards squeaked. My brain said to move, but my knees hugged the floor, clasped to it like glue.
Get up! Get up!
Within me, something felt like it broke, and I was about to jump up and run when the light flashed white on Mabel standing in the pew beside me. As I bathed her with the trembling glow, she stretched out one arm to reveal a hand of bone and skinless fingers. Her covered head looked directly at me.
And then she began to rise.
I lowered the light toward her feet and saw they had reached the level of the seat. There was nothing but air between them and the floor.
The light showed only particles of dust above her head and around her body. Nothing to hold her in the air.
By now the other four bodies were also floating, all looking at me.
I brought my attention back to Mabel just in time to see her move forward. That was more than I could take, more than my frozen body could deal with. My numbness snapped, and I shot up. I tripped over another board dashing toward the exit, but quickly recovered, pushing through the detritus in a frenzy. All the while I feared the touch of bone on my neck, a hand wrapping itself around me.
Until I broke free into the night.
— ♦♦♦ —
I sped past my house and aimed for route 50, the windows down, the blast of summer air keeping me grounded, assuring me I hadn’t dreamed any of this. My heart kept pounding, my skin tingled, and my breathing still hadn’t slowed. I no longer felt ashamed of being afraid. Worrying about hogwash and bullshit was foolhardy, but this–this was real.
And yet this is what I’d come for, this is what I wanted.
I could not explain what had happened there at Mabel’s Church, but it showed me that there must be something more to this planet, more to this existence. And if that meant something beyond death, then so be it.
I saw my father’s face in his casket and felt comfortable that his fear hadn’t been realized. That he was somewhere out there.
My only hope was that it wasn’t hell.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Ghost With the Pompadour. By Author D.V. Bennett, Art by Toe Keen
Eric Henderson had a secret. He loved doing children’s’ theater and was very good at it. His girlfriend Cassie adored him and thought that it was wonderful that he brought such joy to children. But for Eric, that was only his “side job”. His partner in his “day job” was worried that Eric wasn’t focused. And he had to be focused in his real line of work. For Eric’s real secret was that he was an agent working to take down a high-level assassin known as the Ghost with the Pompadour.