Aphelion Issue 249, Volume 24
April 2020
 
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Sacred Ground

by a. l. Dawson




Gad slammed the screen door. Didn’t seem to bother his parents. Dad absorbed in chopping wood out back. Mom still in bed, depressed. First day of vacation in the north woods. Starting off just like it always did. Gad on his own and in their own way so were his parents.

Once out of the cottage Gad headed for the road and escape. The fourth year up here and maybe the last. His dad said some developer guy was buying up land all along the forest edge for an ‘entertainment lodge.’ His dad said things that sometimes were true and a lot of times weren’t. Anyhow, no lodge now so Gad planned to make the most of the two-week vacation.

He reached the road in no time. Not much of one. Single lane, packed dirt. Gad couldn’t remember ever seeing a car or truck drive by. Kinda strange, but he liked it that way. Made him feel like an explorer.

One thing bothered him though. He couldn’t get the missing kids out of his head. His parents told him his imagination was going to be the death of him. If it was his imagination, why did the country store have photos of the girl who went missing last year? About his age. Eleven years old.

Gad shook the girl’s image out of his mind. He swung his shoulder bag back and forth, eager to collect stuff. He’d seen a YouTube video claiming the Vikings had gotten this far inland. He pictured swords and silver jewelry waiting to be found.

Gad walked with eyes glued to the ground. Last summer he found a couple of arrowheads. As his eyes wandered left and right, Gad was reminded of how green everything was at this time of year. Not just one shade of green but all kinds of green in the grasses and trees and marshes. Sort of like the emerald city in Oz.

Gad’s thoughts about treasure and a magical green world stopped when he came to a fork in the road. Weird, he hadn’t remembered a fork. He studied his choices and decided to take the road to the right. More like a path. New territory. He liked that. Until he saw the church.

Out of nowhere it seemed to stare at him. About 30 yards away. Gray and decrepit. The church bothered Gad. He wasn’t sure why exactly, just that it didn’t seem like it belonged next to the forest.

He went to check it out. The church looked deserted. No driveway or path. Gad walked through a wall of knee-high grass and tall black-eyed-susans. When he reached the church steps, he didn’t see or hear anyone. He stepped up to the front door and tried to open it. Locked. He peeked through a crack in the doorway and saw wooden pews and an altar with a large cross hanging from the ceiling. Definitely deserted. So he figured.


******



The Deacon finished hanging the last of the shoes on the wall. He stepped out of the sacristy closet to admire his work. Twelve different children’s shoes and sneakers arranged as a cross. All nailed to the back of the closet. He put his hand in his pocket for the key. He was about to lock the closet door when he thought he heard a sound coming from the front of the church.

Startled, the Deacon rushed out of the sacristy and stood at the pulpit. He waited. Nothing. He walked down the aisle of the church, inspecting the old wooden pews. As he passed each row, he counted the bibles on the seats. Something he liked doing every day. There were no parishioners who sat in those pews and read those bible verses. Hadn’t been for years. No bother, the Deacon had all the patience in the world. They would come back some day. He knew it.

The Deacon reached the last set of pews when he saw the handle of the front door turn. Someone trying to get in. He tiptoed to the door and flattened his body against the wall. The handle stopped moving. Quiet. He sensed someone on the other side. Then, he heard the sound of footsteps.

The Deacon moved with the steps. He looked out of a small peephole to the side of the door. He saw a young boy walking around outside. His palms moistened, and his heart skipped a beat.


*****



Gad decided to walk around to the back of the church. If there was nothing of interest, he’d be on his way. But there was something. A graveyard. It stretched to the edge of the forest. Gravestones stood at odd angles. Some were cracked and others broken in half. Gad could tell from the inscriptions and angels on the gravestones that the cemetery was old.

It was pretty obvious no one tended to the place. Didn’t mean he might not find something really cool. Instead, he just saw rocks, dirt, and washed out grass. Even the grass looked dead. Also, the place had a funny smell. He didn’t know graveyards smelled. Just a whiff of something. He shrugged and resumed walking but halted after only a couple of steps. At the far corner, where the cemetery ended and the forest began, he saw something.

Gad made a beeline for it. It was a beaten up Nike sneaker. He bent down and pulled it out of the loose earth. A kid’s. Looked like it was about his size. Gad’s heart raced as he thought of that missing girl. He put the sneaker in his shoulder bag. Better get back to the cottage. He’d tell his parents. Maybe they’d believe him this time.

As Gad got up and turned to leave, he gasped. A man stood behind him. He was tall and wore a black suit and a starched white shirt. Smoothed back gray hair. His gaunt face had bad teeth. The smell of something like rancid meat came out of the man’s mouth. Goose bumps sprouted up all over his back.

The man said, “Welcome to the Church of Zion. Are you lost boy? Maybe I can help you find your way.”

Gad hoped it wasn’t obvious his knees were shaking and that he needed to pee. That smile and the bad teeth took over the man’s entire face. Gad tried to say something but couldn’t. He felt like some prey caught by one of those deadly plants he watched on the Nature Channel.

The man said, “I think you’re lost. Why don’t you come into the chapel? We can pray together.”

The man eyed the sneaker sticking out of the top Gad’s shoulder bag. “You know, it’s a sin to take things that don’t belong to you.”

Gad gulped. He felt like throwing up either out of fear or the smell when the man spoke. The guy just kept smiling. Finally, the man said, “Come along now. I’m the church deacon. I think we can make this right. Prayer sets so many things right.”

When the Deacon’s cold hand touched Gad’s shoulder, an electric shiver ran through his body. He broke away before the Deacon could get a good grip on him. He bolted toward the forest. Without looking back he shouted, “Sorry. I’m late. My parents are expecting me. Maybe some other time.”

The Deacon shouted, “Don’t go there. It’s no place for children.”

Ten feet into the woods Gad felt swallowed up by darkness. The Deacon didn’t follow. He remained at the boundary between the graveyard and forest and uttered a low growl.


*****



Gad wasn’t sure how far he had run. He’d gone far enough though. He’d fallen a few times and scraped his knee pretty bad. He needed to rest. Gad sat down to think about his situation.

He picked a spot between two huge red maples. The ground was soft. He thanked the moss for that. Also, the Deacon didn’t follow him, and he was really thankful for that. Not so thankful for the fact that he was totally lost. And definitely no thanks to his parents for not letting him have a phone like all his other friends.

His eyes began to adjust to the dim light that bounced off zillions of leaves. All sorts of trees that seemed to go on forever. A sea of green and bark.

Gad was determined to be brave and face his predicament. He checked his bag. The sneaker was still there. So were his apple and water bottle. He took a swig. Compared to the creepy Deacon, being lost in the forest wasn’t so bad. Not good, but he had gotten lost before, sort of, and he’d found his way back to the trail.

Gad gazed up into at a canopy of swaying branches and leaves. He hoped to see where the sun was. Hard to tell, but it looked like it might be right behind him. Late morning, so that was east. Kinda made sense. That’s where the church and graveyard were but also the road. He took another swig of water and stood up to try and retrace the way he had run. If he caught sight of the church, he’d skirt the forest edge until it was out of sight. Then he’d make his way back to the road. That was the plan.

He got started when something caught his eye. Through the trees he made out a different type of light. Not from above but shining through the gaps in the trees. Maybe it was the road. Better check it out. Not that far away.

As Gad walked toward the light, he took in the world around him. When he’d run away from the Deacon, scared as hell, he only noticed the darkness of the forest. Now he noticed things more. The sounds around him became sharper. He could hear leaves jostling in the breeze. The air also felt different. Heavier and cooler. And the spongy moss beneath his feet reminded him of the exercise mats back in his school gym.

He almost forgot that he was lost. The forest seemed so mysterious. Not in a scary way. He kinda felt safe. Safer than back at that church. Safer than…

The light nearly blinded him before he could finish his thought. Gad walked into a clearing. A small circular meadow bathed in sunlight. Wild flowers were everywhere. Lavender tulip shaped flowers and star like flowers with blue petals.

As he meandered through tall grass, his foot hit something. Gad thought it was rock, but it wasn’t. It was a long wooden box with a pointed roof. There were a lot of them in the grass and flowers. Gad mumbled, “ Not really a box. They’re like little houses. Weird little doll houses.”

He sat down in front of one. He was almost sure he had seen one before but couldn’t place where. That’s it! The old photography book of Native Americans he took out from the school library. He remembered he said something about how Indians buried their dead beneath these spirit houses. And there was a photo of one, just like the ones all around him in this meadow. Gad felt a burst of pride that he discovered the spirit houses on his own. A few seconds later he knew that wasn’t really true. More like they found him. He only stumbled upon them.

As Gad tried to count all the scattered spirit houses rising out of the ground, he felt guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t be here sitting over someone’s grave. That thought soon turned into another bad one. He was still lost and didn’t even know if that Deacon might have decided to come for him after all.

He stood up and tried to get his bearings. As the wind gathered force, aspen trees swayed in the breeze. Like they were dancing together. Gad clinched his fists and told himself to focus and stop thinking about dancing aspens.

A crackling of twigs behind his back made him freeze. His first thought was a deer. Then the bad thought came. Maybe it’s the Deacon. No? Maybe? Yes? His mind weighed the possibilities. He slowly turned around and got his answer.

A girl came out of the trees and stood at the edge of the meadow. She said nothing. Only stared at Gad. About the same height as him, 5’4.” From what Gad could see her hair looked a little bedraggled, and her dress had holes in it. The most unusual thing though were the strips of moss that dangled from her body, almost like she’d rolled in a sticky moss bed, and pieces got stuck to her. Gad didn’t know if there were such things as sticky moss beds but thought it could be true.

Gad shouted over to her, “Hi, my name’s Gad. I’m lost. You live around here? Can you help me?”

The girl didn’t move or say a word. She seemed like she was studying him.

Gad tried another tack. “I think some weird guy is chasing me or was chasing me. I need to get back to my parents. They’ll give me hell for being late.”

Still no response until the girl lifted her arm and pointed toward what Gad thought was the northeast. He looked in that direction and saw only the tree line surrounding the meadow. He looked back at the girl, but she was gone.

Gad cried, “Wait!”

The girl must have run back into the forest. Gad ran to the edge of meadow where he had last seen her. He tried to see into the forest, but it was hard with the mottled light. But there she was. The girl had waited for him. She pointed again and began to run.

This time Gad knew, or sensed, he should just follow her the best he could. He zigzagged through old oaks and young pine trees. Roots snaked everywhere. He had to keep looking at the ground so he didn’t trip. Every time he thought she vanished he would see her up ahead waiting for him, but always at a distance.

Gad figured this girl knew the forest really well the way she ran through it with such ease. Who was she? A kid who lived nearby? Something about her… Gad started to wonder how long they would keep doing this. Then the girl stopped.

Gad walked closer to her. This time she didn’t move. Through the openings in the trees he could see the fork in the road. Now he knew where he was.

Gad was only 20 feet away when the girl pointed toward his cottage, away from the direction of the church. A sense of relief and bewilderment washed over him. He wanted to ask her a ton of questions. He looked down to avoid the roots of a large old oak. When he looked up again the girl was gone.

He couldn’t even thank her. He wondered if he’d meet her again. He sighed and started to walk back to the road when he thought he heard a voice call out from the forest. We will. As if she could read his mind.


*****



Gad sat, head bowed, on the front steps of the cottage. His mother stood behind the screen door with arms folded.

“You know your father is upset.”

Gad shuffled his feet. Her words were like a kick in the teeth.

“That nice Deacon paid us a visit and told us what you did. Stealing children’s shoes that were for orphans. How could you?”

Gad stared open mouthed at his mother. He said nothing. They never believed him. Why try?

“The Deacon is willing to forgive you if you go back and apologize.”

The thought of going back nauseated him.

“Don’t sulk. First thing tomorrow morning we will go and meet the Deacon. You can make things right.”

Gad shrunk into himself. He knew what was coming next.

“Go straight up to your room and think about what you did. Think hard. Remember, first thing in the morning. Say it, first thing in the morning.”

Gad mumbled, “First thing in the morning.”


*****



He wondered how he would be able to sleep that night. He lay on his bed with a stack of old Marvel comic books next to him. Normally, they would be enough to take him to a place far away. Not tonight. He kept seeing the Deacon’s smile. He tried to think about the girl he met in the forest. That calmed him down a little. She had helped him. She knew stuff. He could tell.

Then he sat bolt upright. His mind flashed to the photo of the missing girl. Could it be? That was last year. No way! Gad spent the next hour looking up at the ceiling, going back and forth in his mind about the pros and cons of this possibility. Finally, sleep overtook him.


*****



The Deacon stood in front of the sacristy mirror. He flossed his teeth for the second time. Though the light was dim it didn’t matter; he was used to it. He could see all that needed to be seen.

He turned to look at the closet door and thought about where the boy’s shoe would go. He would have to be careful. Make it seem like an accident, but he knew the routine well. He sure did.

The Deacon turned his head back to the mirror. He grinned at the reflection of the closet door behind him. His own shrine. The church fathers thought sending him here would be a sort of penance for his indiscretions. He knew better. This place. This church. And the children he gathered were God’s gift to him.

He took a deep breath, oblivious to the rank smell that filled the room when he opened his mouth. He would sleep well, thinking about what the morning would bring.



*****



First thing in the morning Gad was on the front steps of the cottage with his shoulder bag slung over his shoulder.

His mother said, “Let me get my shawl. Make sure you bring that shoe you stole.”

“I have it.”

His father was still not speaking to him. Gad thought it just as well.

“Okay, Gad. Let’s get a move on it.”

Gad made a point of walking a few steps behind her.

By the time they got to the fork in the road, the Deacon was waiting for them.

Gad’s mother spoke first. “Here he is. Again, I’m so sorry about what happened. He’s really a good boy.”

“I know he is, but sometimes good boys need to be reminded that they really are good. Isn’t that right, boy?” The Deacon put his hand on Gad’s shoulder. Gad cringed but said nothing.

His mother frowned, “What do you say to the Deacon?”

In not much more than a whisper Gad said, “Yes, that’s right.”

“Not to worry. We will pray together and fix things. He’ll be back to you a new person.”

Gad’s mother gushed, “I can’t thank you enough.” She began to head back to the cottage without so much as a hug or goodbye for Gad.


*****



The Deacon waited until Gad’s mother was out of sight before he grabbed Gad’s hand. Gad wanted to pull away and run, but the Deacon’s hand was huge and held him in a vise-like grip. When they got to the church door, the Deacon turned to Gad with his broad smile and said, “Open sesame.” He stamped his food on the porch step and the door creaked open a few inches. Gad couldn’t figure out if the Deacon was trying to be funny or actually impress him with his power to open the stupid door, as if he was a magician. More like a serious weirdo.

Once they entered the church the Deacon let go of Gad’s hand. He turned around and slid a bolt across the door. Gad felt sick to his stomach. It wasn’t just the thought of being locked in the church with the guy. It was the Deacon’s smell. That rancid smell claimed the air around them.

The Deacon walked toward the front of the church. Without looking back he said, “Follow boy.”

The Deacon’s voice sounded matter of fact, as if he knew there was no place Gad could go, except to follow. Gad trailed behind, thinking how alone he was.

As they walked toward the altar, Gad noticed that the pews on both sides of the aisle were in bad shape, splintered and dust covered. The Deacon stopped at the altar. He pointed to a corner door on the left.

“There. That’s the sacristy. You know what a sacristy is?”

Gad shook his head.

“Well, I’ll show you.” The Deacon opened the door and waited for Gad to pass through. Gad tried not to look at the Deacon but couldn’t help but notice out of the corner of his eye the smile that seemed to never leave his face.

The Deacon followed behind into what looked like a small office. Gad heard the door lock behind him. He wanted to cry, but he bit his lip instead.

“Take a seat, young man.”

He sat down on a rickety chair. Gad wondered why he was promoted from boy to young man. He didn’t linger long on the thought as he took stock of the space. The sacristy was not much bigger than Gad’s room back home. He saw a closet door to his right and a stained glass window. There was a small desk to the left of the door. A single embroidered tapestry inscribed with the words, lead us not from temptation, but deliver us from evil, hung on the wall over the closet door.

The Deacon noticed Gad staring at the tapestry. “I think it's a message for you, boy.”

Back to boy again. Gad shifted in his chair, trying to look at the walls and floor, anywhere except at the Deacon.

“Look at me, boy.”

Gad forced himself to look. The Deacon was breathing fast now. His nostrils undulated like a bull ready to charge. His eyes were on fire. His teeth clicked up and down like one of those old typewriters. And, the smell pushed the oxygen out of the room. Gad felt he was about to faint.

The Deacon undid the top button of his white shirt and took off his black suit jacket. He carefully folded them on the desk and in a rapid motion spun around and scooted over to Gad’s chair, sitting down on his knees so his face was level with Gad’s.

Gad really thought he was going to throw up. He started to retch.

The Deacon said in a low growl, “You better not, boy.”

Bile stuck in Gad’s throat. He couldn’t stop his leg from moving up and down.

The Deacon shifted his tone and spoke in an almost soothing voice, “I know what will help. You need a proper prayer gown. Let me get it. Don’t you move. I’ll be right back.”

The Deacon got up and placed one hand on Gad’s jittery leg. Gad came close to peeing in his pants but somehow held it.

“Don’t be scared. It’s going to be all right.”

The Deacon walked to the door. Unlocked it and walked out. Gad heard the click of the lock as the Deacon stepped away.

Gad remained frozen to the chair. He closed his eyes and willed himself to stand up. He made his way to the closet door, hoping to find something he could hit the Deacon with.

He opened the door and staggered backward. On the far wall of the closet he saw clothes hooks arranged as a crude cross. On each hook was a kid’s shoe or a sneaker.

Gad hyperventilated. He pictured his own sneaker on one of those hooks and his crumpled body crammed into a grave behind the church.

Gad shuddered. Focus. He looked up at the stained glass window. Just might fit through it with some luck. The sacristy door unlocked, and the Deacon entered. He carried a white gown over one of his arms.

“What do we have here?” The Deacon went over to the closet door and shut it and dragged Gad back to the chair.

“I can see we have a lot of work to do today. A lot of work.”

The Deacon folded his arms across his chest, studying Gad for a moment. He said, “You need to rid yourself of those sinner’s clothes and put on this gown. I blessed it myself. Stand up now. I’ll help you undress.”

Both of Gad’s legs twitched uncontrollably. A yellow stream flowed down his left pant leg.

The Deacon shouted, “What have you done? Filthy, filthy boy. You’ll have to clean it up.” The Deacon rushed out of the room to get a towel, forgetting to lock the door behind him.

Somewhere deep inside Gad a voice shouted, Go. Now. Window.

A shot of adrenaline coursed through his body. Gad grabbed his shoulder bag and the chair. As hard as he could, he threw the bag against the window. The weight of the bag shattered the windowpane. He stepped up on the chair. As he pulled himself up to the window ledge, he could hear the Deacon running into the room.

Shards of glass stuck out from what remained of the window. Gad knocked some of the glass away, barely hanging onto the ledge with his other arm. He pulled most of his body through the window. The ground was about four feet below him. One leg already dangled on the outside of the church, the other still in the sacristy.

Gad let his weight pull him over the side of the windowsill. As he fell, he felt the Deacon’s fingers slide down his leg and grab his sneaker. Gad instinctively jerked his leg just enough so the Deacon couldn’t pull his sneaker off him. He landed on his side in the graveyard.

Gad got up in excruciating pain. A rib or two might have been cracked. Maybe something worse. He looked down at his feet and saw he still had both sneakers. The sight brought a small measure of comfort. No time to linger. Gad heard the front door of the church open. His side ached, but he moved as fast as he could through the gravestones. The Deacon was already at the side of the church. There was only one place that Gad could go. The forest.

He reached the spot where he’d found the kid’s sneaker just as the Deacon got to the graveyard. Gad turned his head around and saw the Deacon’s lips opening wide, shouting something. His words were garbled, if they were words. More like a feral howl. Gad felt something hit his back. He might have blacked out, he wasn’t sure. Time seemed to stand still.

The next thing he knew he was running into the forest. Almost like he was out of his own body seeing himself run.

He looked back one more time. The Deacon just stood there. Smiling.


*****



Gad stopped running. He knew the Deacon couldn’t follow. Somehow he just knew. He walked slowly, letting the forest cover him in shadows and half-light. He breathed in the cool air, ridding his body of the Deacon’s stench. As the adrenaline rush dissipated, Gad felt different. His back felt sort of hollow, but he wasn’t scared anymore of the Deacon. Without knowing why he touched the trees with his hands. One tree after another.

Gad walked deeper into the forest. He had no urge to find the road or go back to the cottage and see his parents. If he was lost, he didn’t care. Everything seemed changed.

An old oak caught his eye. Moss wrapped around the base of the tree. Gad was drawn to it. In between the roots on the ground was a bed of moss. He lay his body down to have a rest. As he curled up, he imagined the moss wrapped around him like a blanket. A good kind of tired filled his body. The Deacon and his parents were nowhere in his mind as he drifted off into a deep slumber.

The sound of birdcalls wakened him. Gad sat up and rubbed his eyes. He had no idea how long he slept. Five, ten, twenty-five minutes? He hadn’t eaten breakfast when he left the cottage in the morning, but he wasn’t hungry. The cottage. The place seemed foreign to him. His parents, further away than ever.

Gad scratched his head and looked around. The moss beneath him felt so good he didn’t want to leave. He wiped the last of the sleep out of his eyes and then saw the creature. A fox. Just sitting there on his haunches, not more than fifteen feet away. Looking at him. Gad wondered if the fox wanted some of his food? He rummaged through the bag and found a piece of bread. The fox didn’t seem interested in it. It cocked its head, stood up on all fours, and walked away. Didn’t run, wasn’t scared or anything. Just walked away.

Gad thought that was a little odd. In fact the whole forest life seemed different from when he’d first met the girl. Where was she? Maybe she could help me figure things out? Gad set out to find her.

A part of his brain didn’t know where he was going, but another part directed him forward to where? He wasn’t sure. As he walked, the forest world slowed. Nothing moved in haste. The leaves of the trees swayed gently. Two squirrels inched past him. Gad found himself walking in a stroll.

And then the girl appeared from behind a huge ash tree that had spidery branches and leaves that reached all the way to the ground. The girl was tiny next to the tree.

She nodded in what might have been a gesture of recognition. Then, she extended her hand. Gad walked closer and could see her much better now. She didn’t vanish. And he could see her face this time. He couldn’t tell if she was a little sad. When he reached her, their hands folded over one another.

They left the shade of the ash tree and walked toward the light in the clearing. Hand in hand. Strands of moss hanging from each of their bodies.


*****



Hank thought he might call it a day. Already past noon, and the fall light would be fading soon this far north. Three walled eyed bass were plenty, given how late in the season it was. He was about to start up the new Suzuki outdoor motor and pull away from the marsh when he saw movement by the edge of the forest. People? He’d never seen hikers up this way. No trails nearby.

He took out his binoculars to have a better look. He adjusted the lens. Two kids came into view. A boy and girl. They had a net and seemed to be fishing in the marsh. The boy looked up. Hank almost fell over the side of the boat. He shook his head and took a deep breath. Damn, that’s the kid who went missing back in August, but that’s fifty miles down state.

He took another look through the binoculars. The kids were gone, but the net was still there. He had hangovers plenty of times but not this bad. That boy’s body was found in a church graveyard. All over the damn news for days. The man swore to himself he would give up the booze, at least on the nights before he went fishing.

He started up the motor and turned the boat around. He looked back one more time, but he was too far away to see eyes peering out from the edge of the forest. Watching him leave.



THE END


2020 a. l. Dawson

Bio: While new to fiction writing, a. l. Dawson has written numerous peer reviewed articles, book chapters, and the textbook, Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement (Under the name of A. Stoskopf). Their first short story, The Flows, was recently accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of Suspense Magazine.

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