Along the western horizon the sun settled, bloodred—the very eye of Satan glaring down upon the man who stood in front of the horror that had once been his church. Alone on the second floor balcony, his voice echoed into the coming night.
“God, what have I done to deserve this?”
He backed up to the wrought iron railing, then gasped as he realized he was leaning against the bent, misshapen portion of the railing where it had all begun. He pushed away, bit his thumbnail, and looked around at the huge white columns and across the empty balcony. In front of him were the two intimidating wooden doors that led into the foyer of his church. Four windows were on each side, coated with caked dust. No one had been inside the church in weeks. But that did not mean it was empty.
He had to get to his office.
A squeaking filled the silence. The man watched in horror as the doorknob began to turn. He backed away until he felt his heels at the top of the stone stairs. Sweat poured down from his forehead, and he felt his dress shirt sticking to his ribs. The squeaking stopped. Silence descended.
“Is someone there?” he whispered. There was no answer. He sighed and pushed his glasses back up on his nose. His heart slowed, and he wiped his coat sleeve across his forehead. The coat swallowed him. He had lost twenty pounds in the last month. “I’m not walking away this time,” he said to the lifeless door. “You won’t scare me away!”
The door burst open with a rush of wind, and a red mist engulfed him. He could taste the red liquid in the air; it was coppery, salty. Blood! Through the tiny red droplets on his glasses, he watched a river of it surge through the open doorway. His foot slid as he tried to stumble away, and he fell backward, bouncing off the stone banister, rolling down onto the steps. He slowed his fall halfway down the stairs and looked up at the open doors. Blood cascaded over the top step and poured down the steps, tendrils of crimson coming after him.
He slid back, tumbled once again until he came to a halt on his back on the sidewalk in front of the church. The blood came down the stairs, pooling at the base just inches from his feet. He scooted back away from the pool, watching it grow into a large circle of shimmering red.
“Do you think this is going to scare us away?”
He watched as the girl and her child appeared around the corner of the stairway. The girl’s yellow hair rested on her shoulders, and she wore the same cotton dress with sunflowers as on the day she had wormed her way into his life. She couldn’t have been over sixteen, but that didn’t seem to matter to the toddler who held her left hand. The boy was dark-headed and somewhere between a year and two years of age. His nose was running, and he wore only a disposable diaper. The young woman picked up the child.
“No! This is not my doing. Don’t you know what is going on around here?” The man pointed a bloody hand up the stairs.
“You know what I want. Time is running out,” she said. The toddler smiled.
“It’s in my office, and I can’t get inside because of ”—he gestured at the pool of blood—“this!”
“I’m not leaving, Thomas. We’re in the nursery.” She disappeared from sight, back toward the door under the stairs that led into the basement of the old church.
A fly buzzed by his head and landed on his glasses. He swatted at it. Another fly circled his head. He shook his bloody hair as more flies appeared and moved toward the pool of blood. One landed on the shiny, crimson surface and instantly burst into flame. More flies dove into the pool until a circle of flame hovered above the blood. It gently floated higher, growing larger with each dying fly until it was the size of a beach ball.
More flies filled the evening air, circling in dizzying arcs, until they surrounded the ball of flame. A hole opened in the front of the fly ball, and the flames showed forth from within. The man blinked as the opening turned toward him. It was a huge flaming eye! More flies arrived and flew about the flaming eye to form a spiral that pulsated and spun around it.
“We know about the girl,” the raspy voice proclaimed as the eye lifted higher in the air.
At that, the man lost all reason, all civility, and scuttled backward like a crab into the road in front of the church. The hot asphalt blistered his palms. The buzzing grew louder as the voice spoke the words over and over. His heart pounded. He heard a high, keening whimper and realized it was his own voice.
Suddenly, against the insane noises, there came another roar, approaching fast, and then the sound of squealing brakes, the whoosh of hot wind, the smell of burning rubber, and the grill of a recreational vehicle as it stopped just inches from his face.
The man glanced back at the flaming eye with its pulsating spiral. It had disappeared, leaving only a pool of blood behind. The doors of the church were shut. The sudden silence was punctuated by the creaking and popping of the RV to his left. A long shadow fell over him as a figure stepped into the man’s sight.
He was six feet tall with wiry muscles and dressed in a V-neck T-shirt, blue jeans, and work boots. His hair was reddish blond and short, his face tight and expressionless. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses.
“How long has it been bleeding?” His voice was barely above a whisper.
“It just started.” The man wiped blood from his face. “Are you Steel?”
“Get up.” The figure disappeared into the RV.
He grabbed the grill of the RV with bloody hands and pulled himself shakily to his feet. He walked around the vehicle and entered through the open door. Inside, a table with two laptops and one large monitor sat where he would have expected the kitchen table to be. The man he presumed to be Jonathan Steel reappeared with a black backpack in one hand and a plastic container of disinfectant wipes in the other. He handed him the wipes.
“Clean up. You stink.”
“Hey, I asked you a question.” He pulled wipes from the container and wiped the blood from his hands. “Are you Steel?”
Steel opened a cabinet and took out a huge flashlight. “Are the lights working inside the church?”
The man wiped blood from his glasses. “I don’t know. Listen, you haven’t answered my question.”
The mirrored sunglasses turned in his direction. “Yes. I am Jonathan Steel.”
“I’m . . . I’m Thomas Parker. And this is my church.” He tossed the bloodstained wipes into the sink.
“I know,” Steel answered.
“What are you going to do?”
“We are going inside.” Steel pushed past him toward the open door.
“But don’t we need to sit down and talk about this?” Parker followed the man out of the RV. “Maybe over a cup of coffee? Maybe after I’ve had a shower?”
Steel ignored him and paused at the pool of blood. A fly landed lazily on the surface of the pool and then burst into flames. “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.”
Parker grabbed the man’s arm to turn him. He swallowed. “No one has been inside for six weeks.”
Steel took off his sunglasses, and Parker was shocked by his bright, turquoise eyes. Steel glared at him. “Whose blood is this?”
Parker looked at the blood and then back into Steel’s penetrating gaze. “I don’t know. It just appeared.”
Steel nodded and slid the sunglasses into a pocket of his T-shirt. “Then we need to find the source. Let’s go.”
Parker watched in horror as Steel squished through the puddle of blood and started up the stairs. He hurried after him, trying his best to avoid the rivulets of blood on the stairs. They arrived at the upper level, and Steel paused in front of the closed doors. Blood still trickled from the threshold. His head turned as he studied the walls, the windows, and finally the wrought iron railing that ran around the huge balcony. Parker followed the direction of the man’s gaze and felt a chill when it stopped on the far railing. He knew that if Steel went to the edge and looked down he would see the impression where the body had landed in the soft, grassy soil. The grass still had not grown back. Steel reached for the doorknob and paused.
“Wait a minute!” Parker said. “Do I have to go with you?”