“See ya when I see ya! Have a nice afterlife!”
Saint Wuester’s Church
The source of the crack of light seeping under the door at the top of the staircase could have come from literally anywhere, Howie reminded himself of this while he was climbing up the steps, but still he wasn’t expecting to open a door into Heaven. Brilliant, blinding white light backlit with soft undertones of vibrant colors of all bends of the rainbow overwhelm Howie, lift him off his feet, consume him entirely. When it fades and Howie realizes he’s just in a church, he’s slightly less than excited about the prospect.
The basement door clapping gently shut behind him gives Howie a small start. Once composed he begins to explore and finds himself in a maze of cardboard boxes, some sealed, some wide open, the open ones overflowing with old clothing, cans of food, bottles of water. Only after making two turns does Howie see the first pew.
“So it is a church.” he tells himself. Then, addressing the cardboard boxes and dark rock walls, he follows with, “Hello? Is anybody here?”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” he explains to the walls of the maze. “Somebody had to move all of this into the pews, come on now. I know you’re in here, just come out. Please.”
The scuttling of tiny clawed paws across cobblestone floors. ‘Oh good, they have rats.’ Nothing else.
“I mean… come on, I’m not going to hurt ya. Just… just please come on out, all right? Please? Come out now.”
His request in short, padded echoes, there but not for long. Howie sighs. His voice low, he drawls out, “Cryin’ for help in a church and won’t nobody answer my words. Shame.” Hands on his hips Howie kicks the ground once with his right foot, then once with his left. The silence is haunting, something’s not right here.
“I need a fuckin’ smoke,” Howie concludes, taking the joint out of his pocket. Holding the crutch in his teeth, he carefully unbends the stick with one hand and fishes out the matchbook with the other. He doesn’t even manage to get it out of his pocket before six hands lay on his back and send him sprawling towards the ground.
“Shit!” Howie shouts, trying to wrestle his hand out of his pocket before the cobblestone floor rudely wakes his forehead back up. Pressing both his palms hard against the floor, Howie gets his feet under him and runs forward, ducking behind a spire of overfull boxes. The tower tips and wobbles, then stabilizes itself. Howie’s face is right against the edge.
“All right, let’s not do that again. Come on, folks, I’m just a stand-up, I’m not go’n’a hurt you. Can we be civil?”
“Civil?” barks a harsh and weathered voice, the voice not of nails on a chalkboard but of a chalkboard tossed overboard into a stormy moonlit ocean. “This is The Last Stand of Civilization, young man, and we’re the only ones left to hold it up. You have a lot of nerve asking us if we can be civil.”
“The last… what are you talking about?” Howie peeks around the box’s bent corner and sees what appears to be a nun standing there around the corner in the maze. He quickly hides back and pockets the joint, then, “Who are you?”
“No, you first,” the nun nudges. Footsteps walk off in opposite directions from the nun, yet when Howie peeks back around the corner she’s still there. “Go on and come out,” she says, her voice mellow. “I won’t bite you unless I’m biting you back, son.”
What? “What? ”
The nun chuckles and beckons Howie out with an ancient, spotty hand. “Come on out, son. I won’t hurt you, neither will they.”
Howie comes right out; he heard the footsteps, but to just come out and admit they’re not alone in this church like that? Howie is only still alive because the nuns want him to be, that much is startlingly clear to Howie “Hoots” McGee right now. “So, what, are you going to hang me up and skin me or something? What is this, and why’s the light so bright outside?”
Howie, mimicking the nun, looks up to a window of stained glass depicting who appears to be Jesus raising his hands in worship over four mushroom-lookin’ things, one full white, one red and white, one blue, and one full red. There are angels and halos and all sorts of decorative details around the edges, but the ‘shrooms in the center stand out more than anything else. Their glow is a glare, direct and seething; it didn’t pull Howie’s attention, but now that he’s looking at it he can’t quite look away no matter how hard he tries. A pair of hands fall on Howie’s shoulders from behind but he barely notices, the glow of the window’s taken him, it’s, it…
“It starts with an aRe and it ends–”
Regardless of what it ends with, that bit gets Howie’s attention. He paws the surprisingly lofty hands off his shoulders and halves the distance between himself and the first nun. She doesn’t make any move to suggest that she has the intention of grabbing him, but Howie feels in danger of being grabbed anyway.
“Thank you for putting a stop to that,” says the nun of the grabby aura. “My name is Sister Etty, son. Behind me is Sister Betty and behind you is Sister Letty.”
Howie turns around and looks at the nun Sister Letty. She waves at him and drops him a wink, terrifying him beyond belief. Her age is impossible to discern, ethnicity even more so. He turns back and sees Sister Betty, who had poked her head out from behind Sister Etty to steal a quick peek when Howie wasn’t looking, disappear back behind Sister Etty.
“All right… it’s good to meet y’all. I’m Howie McGee, but y’all can call me Hoots if you like. I’m eh, I’m a stand-up comedian, I perform locally pretty often. I know y’all are nuns but you–… no, hold on. We can chat later, I need to know what’s going on here. What’s with the boxes, the bright light outside, this whole creepin’ demeanor y’all got goin’ on?” That last was said more by his hands than with his mouth. “Somebody start explainin’, right now.”
“Mister Hoots, I should – and will now – ask you the very same thing. This is my church we’re in, the Sisters and I know every face who comes here and we’ve never once seen yours.” Howie watches Sister Betty peek out to look but not at him, probably just to trade eyes with Sister Letty. “What brought you to our church last night?”
“I was… all right, look, I’ll explain myself fully, but can we go somewhere less crowded? So I can sit down and see all of you? This maze is too much for me right now, Sisters, I have a pounding headache.”
The nuns agree amiably enough. They migrate to the center of the church where four pews were intentionally left open amidst the storm of donation boxes.
“I was smokin’ some pot last night, smokin’ a whole lot of that grass. The very same stuff you almost laid me out on the floor for a minute ago.”
“Yes, we’re familiar with the Devil’s Lettuce,” Sister Etty scorns knowingly from behind Howie.
“Yeah, sure y’all are. Why not? So I was smoking a lot of it and I guess I got a little too high. Got kicked out of my apartment by my boyfriend, so I wan–”
“Boyfriend…?” asks Sister Etty.
“Boyfriend,” confirms Sister Letty. “Go on, buddy.”
“Right…” Howie continues. “Listen, okay, I’m not gay or anything, I’m just a demi-pansexual. If y’all aren’t cool with that we can hash it all out right now, I really don’t mind.”
“No, we don–”
“Because I can tell you all right now, Sisters Three, I wouldn’t dream of touching you. Any of you, in any way. Sitting so close like this makes me a little uncomfortable, tell ya the truth.”
The mortified nuns look alarmedly back and forth at one another like prairie dogs popping in and out of their burrows.
“It’s a me thing, understand, it’s not you lot at all. I had a bad church experience when I was younger, uh, I don’t really wan’a speak too much on it. Listen, all the demi-pan thing means is that at the end of the day I don’t care who I fuck, but I need to get to know you pretty damn well if we’re gon’a get down and do the thing. At least that’s what I make it mean, if you know what I mean. All right? It’s that simple, and I ain’t goin’ to Hell for it neither, so if you ladies have something to say about it, I’m all ears.”
The nuns don’t say a word. Then, one says a few.
“Boy… I will ask you not to open your mouth in such a lude manner when under the roof of this church ever again, and I will move on.” Sister Etty stands up behind Howie. He can feel her shadow envelope his back. “You got kicked out of your home and you found your way into our basement. But this isn’t the first time you slept down there, is it Howie?”
“No ma’am,” Howie says outright. “Won’t bother tryin’ to lie to you folks, not at this point. I’ve spent a good few nights here, and I appreciate you folks for never calling the authorities on me, too. Lord knows I don’t need that problem – oh, eh, no offense.”
“None… taken?” Nurse Betty guesses.
“So you haven’t been outside then, have you dearie?”
“No,” Howie says to Sister Letty. “I woke up and came right up here.”
“You didn’t light a joint first?” Sister Etty accuses. “I smelled pot smoke earlier, Howie. I think it’s pretty clear none of us caused it,” she says, gesturing at her Sisters.
“I smoked last night… at least, I think I did.” He rubs the back of his head. “Look, I uh… I’ll just be on my way, I need to get home to my boy.” He stands, sidesteps out into the aisle. “Pleasure, Sisters. Good luck with uh…” He stops and turns back around. “What’d you say you were doin’ here again, Sisters?”
Sisters Betty and Letty look to Sister Etty, who stands and clasps her hands together at her waist. “Well Howie, the end has finally come. Armageddon has fallen upon the Earth, the Rapture has taken the good to Heaven and the rest have been left behind.”
Howie takes an unmeasured step backwards, saying nothing.
“This church protected us four, Howie, but there’s no telling what befell the rest of the town, or even the rest of the world. We’re all alive, us thre– four, us four are alive, and we have all the supplies we’ll need to survive right here at Saint Wuester’s Church! The town of Wuester is humanity’s last hope, and we are the energy that keeps the heart of that hope beating.”
Apparently that’s the whole spiel. “You’re… kidding, right?” He looks between their somber, flat faces, looks at the dusty smudges on their worn black and white habits. “No, you can’t. That can’t be real, it can’t.”
Howie turns and trudges towards the big front doors, kicking and tossing boxes aside like they were empty. Garbage bag after garbage bag full of used clothing splits open and spews out garments in one gush after the next, drowning the other unpacked supplies under tidal waves of questionably laundered garments. He grabs the door’s handles, smooth, ornate things, probably made of brass, and pulls, but the doors don’t budge. He then shoves into them with all his might and spills himself down the front stairs and into the parking lot. His nose grinds into the ground but there’s no pain, it was like someone laid out some kind of cushion on the asphalt. The world is mostly white when he picks himself up, but it’s not the blinding white of his first glimpse out of the basement. It’s a dull, dirty white, closer to a pale gray than anything else, and it’s everywhere, it’s on his hands and his face, it’s caked to his arms and his clothing, there’s carpets of it covering the streets, the cars, the trees, the…
“Oh… oh, oh my…”
The trees are all black.
Acting as a border between the chruch’s parking lot and the sidewalk around it is a wide strip of grass bearing a maple tree roughly in line with every seventh slab of the walk. Their leaves should be a bright, healthy green color this time of year, they should be leaves, but instead they’re a cakey grayish white mass and the bark is not its usual rough, textured brown but a flat, fissured black. Howie walks up to the nearest tree and presses his hand against its trunk, taking it back to reveal a palm covered in soot.
“What…” he says, looking from tree to tree to tree, all of them black from the ground up, all of them leaved in cakey gray helmets of ash. The ground is an untarnished plane, as if snow fell last night, and the sky… the sky is a piercing, empty white. The white of faded driftwood. The white of bleached death. Out of instinct and nothing else Howie lifts one boot and kicks the tree, sending a tremor up the charred trunk and into the brittle branches which shatter and break, raining down upon Howie in a ghastly storm of burned twigs and cooled ash until the trunk of the tree is buried up to the branches in its own remains.
Coughing his brains out Howie bursts from the pile of ash in the form of a featureless mass of gray. He staggers a few steps forward and collapses down to his hands and knees, struggling to breathe as the ash bursts into clouds upon every little movement. “What–” escapes his mouth between fits of dry heaving and harsh coughing. “What is this, what–” Both hands clutch to his stomach, there’s something sharp in his throat. Lots of sharp somethings, they’re flying around like dragonflies and stinging into him like hornets, he can’t speak, he can’t breathe, can’t–
‘just go back inside already, you stupid fuck’
–stay on his hands and knees out here anymore, this just isn’t sustainable. Whatever happened last night was clearly catastrophic and nobody can possibly know how to properly react to finding out about it the way Howie did, but Jack, this ain’t the way to go. He just needs to go back inside and he’ll be able to think. He’ll be fine.
Howie tries to stand up but tumbles right back down, coughing all the way there. Something grabs him by the back of his shirt and pulls him up, slinging his arm over their shoulder. It’s one of the nuns, she came out to save Howie, she dirtied her habit for him. Howie sees the other two Sisters watching from behind the open doors lookin’ like tall silhouetted lampshades. One step at a time, Sister Letty leads Howie up the steps and back inside the sturdy stone walls of St. Wuester’s Church, the palpitating heart of The Last Stand of Civilization.
Hello Commons, this has been the third subchapter of the first chapter of Flowers, a novel about a man who smokes the last of his pot.
Flowers is part of the Third Spiral, an anthology of sorts called The Here and Now which is comprised of stories told from the various planes of Existence.
Flowers is available to read for free in its entirety on my website. Click here to check it out.
I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.
If you like Flowers and would like to help support my work, click here and buy an autographed copy of the book (or anything else!) from my store. Alternatively, you can snag a cheaper (and unsigned) copy from Amazon by clicking here.
Be well Commons~