This story is by Doug Sandelin and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When her infant clutching body struck the pavement, the thought of “living in the moment” exposed the rational insanity that haunts life.
Under the dim yellow flickering streetlight lies a mother’s crushed body, face-up, her arms locked around her crying newborn. A shadow on top of the steeple retreats into the church as I move toward the corpse.
Standing over the dead mother, I see the little soul clinging to life, suckling on the last few waves of warm love rising from the heart of the mother-corpse. I stand hunched over the delicate shivering body and watch as the human cherub falls asleep in death. It’s forever without consequence to the world, a wanderer without seeking. This tiny being is now under the embrace of the eternally meaningless doom that haunts humanity.
In submission to the Holy Ghost Church on chatelaine st is the dark back alley that gives no testimony to the light. Without memory, I have wandered these alleys in shadow. I don’t worship in this church, this House of God rising from death. I worship the cold hard ground in this dark alleyway. The nowhere place I live has now been baptized and drowned in the dead mother’s blood and flesh. The unholy offering displayed at my feet.
This murder, I believe, is the work of the son of the minister, Isabella, who blasts her divine words from the pulpit on Sunday mornings in this stone-walled church on chatelaine st. Hunter is what she named him. Shackled by dogma, Hunter has fashioned his anger into an embodiment of evil.
As an atheist, I recline in this house of God from time to time and observe the displaced souls shiver in their pews and wander the church’s hallways. Behind Isabell’s pulpit, in full view of the people who come here every Sunday to be oriented back into life, is a large gold sign shaped like a scroll. It hangs above their victim-savior-effigy that’s nailed to a cross that reads, “Fear flows in the void of the empty vessel, the nonbeliever.” I like this quote but have yet to feel frighted by my unbelieving empty vessel. Feelings are for those who desire connection.
I’ve tried praying, but it always feels like I’m thanking the Devil for God, which is too paradoxical. It’s mildly amusing to attend this chapel without engagement or management, and I have no desire to aid those in need. My honor is adrift, a ghost, neither holy nor unholy, merely lost in gloom. But the murder of this mother and child haunts my apathy.
The minister, Isabella, extends kindness to the needy, and Isabella is the only one I’ve met fashioned with a collar I trust and respect. My respect endures from acts of compassion towards those in the moat of humanity living on the streets. She builds strength in women hung out to dry and come here to be watered with Isabella’s sermons. When I take comfort in the pews, she nods but never have we spoken.
I’m sitting at the back of the dimly lit church. I see Isabella’s son, Hunter. He ignores me while helping his mom prepare for tomorrow morning’s service. Hunter has never paid me any mind, and I repay him with disregard. He must have thrown the mother and child off the roof. If anyone had the capacity for murder, it’s him. I don’t know if he saw me near his victim, but I feel safe here. The gospel of knowing evil is the wisdom to save you from evil.
Tattooed Symbols of holy hatred run up his back and down his arms. Hunter keeps his rage chained in the abyss when Isabella is around. Stoic charm has taken over where Hunter’s heart once lived and when I see Hunter, I see a predator who forged his anger into cunning poise. I’ve seen what Hunter and his lackey, Nick, are capable of doing. Charm is the handle attached to the sickle ripping apart his unsuspecting prey.
Nick and Hunter lustfully mutilate stray animals from the dark streets, but their hunger for crimson gore has escalated from killing animals to murder. I remember one of his sermons to his congregation of one, Nick. In their temple of hurt, an abandoned box truck at the end of the alley, where the enlightened dare not go. I watched Hunter preach through the rusted hole of the truck. I heard his sickness puking from his mouth at the bloodstained podium in his lair; Hunter wails, “the charity of tolerance is for those who do not seek the inner power of God. The warm flood pours out of the unrighteous around the feet of those who measure up to the divinity of the one and only master.”
Hunter’s eyes were wet with adrenalin. He slammed both fists on the bloodstained pulpit, and the sweat flowed from his red face down his cheeks. The shimmering dancing balls of sweat reflect the flickering ceremonial candles circling him. Hunter’s fingers turn white, gripping the pulpit tight as he goes into a self-righteous rant, quoting his favorite scripture.
“Or has the potter no right over the clay to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? And what if God, wanting to display his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if he did this to make known the riches of his glory on objects of mercy that he prepared beforehand for glory.” (Romans 9:21-23)
Nick was drunk on Hunter’s crafty tirade, but Hunter’s blood raves were sobering to me, and I saw the hellish cloud of self-righteousness haunt him. Not wanting to suffer his pestilence, I’ve never returned to his temple, and I am grateful for the distance between us.
Am I sober enough to care? Should I tell Isabella about her son? Why would she believe a drifter like me? Under the nailed effigy of the “Son,” Hunter pushes a floor duster around the pulpit. Can I nail myself to a belief long enough to confess the sins of the son to Isabella? The choice is mine; I will speak and stop the insanity.
Isabella looks up from her notes for tomorrow’s sermon and stares into my eyes. She begins a hushed hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” she continues humming the tune walking down the center aisle and passing by the row I’m in. Sitting directly behind me, Isabella sings, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares.
I have already come…Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease: I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.” I Lift my head and fix My eyes centered on the vaulted ceiling, directly under the pinnacle of death. I feel her warm breath on my neck and hear her softly sing, “That saved a wretch like me…,” and she whispers, “you are Amos.”
“Amos…Amos,” I weep, “my name is Amos!” I bellow a long deep groan of pain. Suddenly my death flashed before my eyes. I see my mother’s face covered in terror in the light of the moon, her long black hair wisping in the wind. The Clutch of her left arm cherishes me to her breast, and she holds tight my cheek against hers with her right hand. My mother’s pleas for mercy, hushed by the killer’s hymn, sung on the back of my neck, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…”
The thrust from the holy hands pushed my mother and me off the roof. My mother’s loving arms couldn’t save me “falling from grace.” I collapsed into my mother’s crushed body, hitting the pavement of purgatory in the dark alley of certainty that grows from the void of the fear-tied dogma of faith. Cleansing truth revealed in the purge of belief. Uncertainty heals the path to create the self that haunts in the aftermath.