by Elford Alley
No time to react. Before he realized he wasn’t alone, they pulled him from his bed and tackled him to the floor. He could hear the rip and pop of duct tape, too many knees and arms bearing down on him to escape. Hands and feet tied, they carried him out the door and heaved him into the back of an idling truck.
Jim knew what would happen next. He knew the second he hit the floor in his bedroom. They were taking him to the church on Bethel-Cannon Road. In the back of the truck, he tried to sit up, but a hand pushed him down and a terse voice advised him not to move. He couldn’t see with the tape across his eyes, but he could hear the voice.
“Eric, man, I didn’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t even see her at the party!”
Silence. Jim called out to his friend twice more, before the crushing boot to his stomach caused Jim to ball up, coughing and heaving. He remained that way, curled in a ball, knees to his chest, as the truck rumbled and shook down one dirt road after another. It stopped briefly, and he heard the screech of the opening gate, the one that cut off access to the church. The truck rumbled across the cattle guard and onto the narrow road weaving through the tall East Texas pines.
The truck lurched to a stop, sand and gravel rock grinding under the tires. Eric patted the truck.
“Time to go, Jim.”
Again, multiple hands gripped his clothing and pulled him out onto the ground, the gravel stabbing into his right side. He knew where they were. They ripped the tape from his face. His hissed in pain and blinked as his vision focused. Jim could finally see the masked figures standing over him. He knew them, from their builds, from their masks. He’d accompanied them here many a time, bringing others to the church on Bethel-Cannon Road.
“I didn’t do anything to her! I swear! You know me! You all know me!”
They said nothing. He knew they wouldn’t. He never said anything either. Not until they gathered at friend’s house afterward, huddled in a basement or on a back porch with beer to celebrate justice done. Righteous punishment dealt out in the wake of the law’s failure.
But what was happening now? Jim didn’t understand. They dragged him this time, across the gravel lot and up the four well-trodden steps, the warped wood creaking with each step. They were at the entry way. The church had been abandoned here in the woods for at least 75 years. The door always open, now a dark void that threatened to swallow him. The low hip roof with worn away shingles and exposed wood looked like the scaly back of a snake. No steeples. No crosses. The white paint only remained in a few small portions shielded from wind and rain, otherwise the entire building was exposed wood, a drained shade of gray.
They brought him inside and slammed the door shut behind him. As Jim struggled out of the duct tape on his wrists, he heard the clink of a chain being run through the two door handles, and the snap of the padlock. Jim heard the truck tires spin in the gravel as they left. He freed his wrists and unwrapped the tape from his ankles and legs.
Jim could see the interior now, through the shafts of moonlight entering the multiple holes in the roof. Only two strategic beams running from the floor to the ceiling kept the roof from collapsing completely. Pieces of ceiling tile clung together and dangled. The floors were worn and busted, dotted with holes that exposed the carpet, the linoleum underneath, and finally the original wooden flooring. The sour rank of mildew entered his nose.
He stood up. Looking ahead, he could see the empty pulpit, with only two pews remaining in the entire building. In the furthest, he could see a woman. Her hair was white, pulled tight in a bun, and she had a threadbare, patchwork shawl wrapped around her shoulders.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice was light, with a slight crack. “Take a seat.”
Jim stepped toward her, when he reached the pew behind her she instructed him to sit. He did.
“I didn’t do it. What they think I did. I didn’t.” Jim said.
“I can be the judge of that. I’m fair, aren’t it?”
“Yes.” Jim said. He had never seen her. He had no idea it was a her.
She turned around. Her face round and pale, with dark lines of wrinkles around her nose and mouth. Her chin jutted forward and her eyes were tiny orbs deep in her face. A pair of cheap reading glasses rested on her nose. She removed them and gave a thin smile. She leaned toward Jim, and he leaned away.
Her hand grabbed his jaw, a vice of steel. She yanked his head toward her, pulling him off the seat. He stood on shaking, half-bent legs while she examined his face, scanning him with her tiny eyes, pursing her mouth until it was only a thin line.
“You have nothing to confess?” She asked. She released her grip. He fell back against the pew.
“No,” he gasped. “No. I was there; I was at the party but I didn’t see her! There were so many people there, why did they bring me here? Why me?”
She stood up and walked around the pew to stand closer to Jim. To inhabit this decayed wreck, to be the judge they brought others to, he didn’t expect to see a small woman in a black and white striped button bouse, in blue slacks and bare feet. She removed her shawl and folded it, resting it on the pew seat.
“You are innocent of the crime.” She announced.
“Then I can go?” Jim asked.
She shook her head.
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“That’s the case for many of them. But you still have something I need. I won’t take all of it. I will leave the important parts to the stars. But I need your shell.”
Jim scooted back and stood up slowly, gripping the top of the pew with his right hand. “My shell?”
“I need form. This one has done well enough. She was accused as well, but she did it. Poisoned the whole lot of them. My, my.”
She started to walk to him. Jim begged himself to run, the push past her and flee. Her weak shuffle gave way to a confident stroll, each deliberate step closing the gap as she lowered her head and shoulders, stalking the young man down the space between the pews.
“But I’m innocent!” Jim cried. “I don’t understand.”
“I know. But would a starving dog spare a wounded squirrel out of kindness? Kindness can only be sustained with full bellies. I am sorry. Truly.”
“This is a house of God!” Jim said.
“Is that what I am?” She asked. “I can’t remember. I was here when they built this place, and it was here I found purpose. And you will too.”
Jim found himself backed against the wall. He pressed against it, hoping somehow it would give way and he could sprint into the woods. But this was her woods too, wasn’t it?
The woman brought shaking hands to her mouth, rolling arthritic fingers inside, and pulling at the skin until it tore and fell away. He watched her grow taller, but realized her feet now dangled off the ground. He could see something dark and scaled, bending and flexing like a serpent, running from her back and into the floor. She removed her old shell, preparing herself for new form. The screams died quickly in the old church on Bethel-Cannon Road.
Elford Alley is a horror writer and playwright. His work has appeared in the anthology Campfire Macabre and his play Ghosts was produced at the Capital Fringe Festival. You can pick up his short horror collections Ash and Bone, Find Us, and The Last Night in the Damned House on Amazon. He lives in Texas with his wife and kids, and a murderous Jack Russell terrier named Margot. You can find him on Twitter at @ElfordAlley.