Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Theme Story - Blackout

This is also the prologue for my new book, Majestic. It's a direct sequel to my prior effort. Enjoy!
“Hey! Get out of there!”

Father Montrose shouted at the dancing shadows in the bushes. Only laughter answered as they dashed off into the night – two figures bursting from the foliage. Probably some local high-schoolers up to no good, Father Montrose thought. He reached back into the door and grabbed a flashlight off the table. He'd found that letting problems like this fester tended to result in more work down the road. A passing parishioner out for their morning walk would notice the graffiti, or garbage, or whatever, and be pounding on his door within the hour. Father Montrose grimaced. It wasn't that he disliked talking to his flock, it was just that he enjoyed sleeping in on days he didn't have morning service responsibilities.

He stepped out into the night with a sigh, thumbing the button on the flashlight and shining it at the bushes. He looked for signs of movement, but there was nothing but a forlorn-looking bush, shivering in the late winter cold as a breeze passed through its bare branches. Satisfied, Father Montrose stepped out into the night to inspect the damage. Lord, it is cold tonight. He shivered while wishing he had grabbed a jacket from the rack near the door. He approached the bush with a wary eye. Just last fall he had been in a similar situation, except for when he had arrived at the trouble spot one of the teenagers had taken the opportunity to pelt him with an egg. And we still haven't found the baby Jesus from our manger display. I swear, the kids today have no respect for our Lord whatsoever!

He approached the bush and directed the flashlight to the wall. At first glance nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but after a moment his nose caught the telltale whiff – the slight tinge of an odor that heralded spray-paint. His fears were confirmed as he took a step forward and his foot connected with a hard cylinder, a marble inside rattling as the can rolled away. Times like this tried Father Montrose's faith. Turning the other cheek is all well and good when considering the actions of idle sinners, but the true measure of a Christian was how he did so when faced with a more painful infraction that had to be ignored. He ground his teeth, saying the rosary silently to himself. After a few moments the mantra calmed him, and he sighed as he reached down to grab the can. Well, that's another thousand dollars down the drain. Better call the cleaners in the morning. He turned and headed back to the rectory, shaking his head ruefully.

He closed the door as he entered, keeping the flashlight with him as he headed back to his desk in the office. I know that a shepherd must live among his flock, but this is unreal. This area is like a war zone! He shook his head in consternation. He'd known the risks in taking the position – in fact, the romanticism of tending to and helping a troubled parish had factored into his decision. He just hand't realized how bad things really were in the area. If the house hadn't been part of the deal, he likely would have been living several miles away in the less-sketchy area. As it was, he had quickly found out that tending a troubled church meant constant vigilance.

He sat back down at his desk, setting the flashlight on the corner as he brought the computer screen to life. It was getting close to midnight, Wednesday night mass having ended a few hours before. He liked to work in the nights after a service – the energy he gleaned from his sermon lent him an energy that had drawn him to the priesthood in the first place, and he found that energy useful for tending to messages from his parishioners. He opened his email and glanced through the inbox. Twenty-seven new messages. Should be a short night.

He clicked on the first message and gave it a read-through. Beth was one of his older parishioners, having been with the congregation in various capacities for the past thirty years. Tonight she was simply giving a summary of the “Couples for Christ” meeting she had conducted earlier tonight. Nothing surprising here, Father Montrose mused. He moved the message to a folder in case he needed to reference it later, and opened the next message. Great, Zachary has done something new. He smiled to himself as he read through the email. Zachary was not much for thinking ahead, preferring to lead his life by asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Father Montrose smiled as he read the latest missive. Zachary was looking for guidance – he'd eaten meat last Friday, knowing it was Lent. Good thing we're past the fire and torment of the Old Testament – I'm not so sure Zachary would keep up his act if the penalty was a stoning. But then again, maybe that was the point of the harsh penalties. Father Montrose shivered, thinking of the proscriptions of the church of old.

He had sent his reply and was getting ready to open the next message when the computer screen suddenly shut off. He looked around, but the entire room was bathed in darkness. Power must be out, he thought, and with it getting close to ten degrees tonight. Father Montrose was quick to praise the benefits of his electric furnace when his parishioners complained of high gas bills, but there was always the risk of the furnace blowing a fuse. He grabbed the flashlight, the harsh blue LED light bathing the room in an unearthly glow.

As he walked towards the basement door and the circuit breaker, he heard some scratching at the window. He quickly shined the light towards the glass, but the reflection of his flashlight obscured his vision. He had just about written the scratching off as an illusion when he heard more noises. A thump, as if something was being hit against the wall outside, and more scratching. He moved over to the window and stared out. Looking to the sides he could see some movement, but he couldn't make out any distinct forms in the darkness. Cursing, he went back to the kitchen and grabbed a baseball bat as he headed to the door. I swear, those gang-bangers have gone too far this time. He had no intention of using the bat, of course – wrath was a sin, after all – but it comforted him to have it ready in case he needed it. While wrath and vengeance weren't condoned, there was nothing in the Bible prohibiting a little vigorous self-defense.

He reached for the doorknob and turned the handle. The door wouldn't open. He pulled harder, trying the knob again, but still the door refused to budge. He could feel it move slightly, but it was being held fast by something. He tried more force, but the door just wouldn't open at all. That's odd. The bolt isn't stuck – I can feel it moving around. What could be keeping the door closed? He pulled one last time, but gave up in frustration.

He moved to the nearby window to see if he could catch a glimpse of anything outside. He scanned the yard near the door. He was just about to turn away and head for the front of the building when something caught his eye. A man was standing in the yard, motionless. Father Montrose squinted at the figure, trying to discern the man's features. It was then that he noticed the flicker in the man's hand. A flame – does he have a lighter?

The sudden light illuminated the man's features. Cold eyes stared out of an angular face, unblinking as their gazes met. Father Montrose found himself unable to look away, his eyes transfixed by the stranger. Who the hell is that? He started to move for the door again before a thought struck him. Oh, he's probably not anyone to fear.

Father Montrose shook himself. Where had that thought come from? The dissonance between the thought and his situation jarred him into action, but as he took a step towards the door he found himself looking out the window again. He really isn't anyone to fear. Father Montrose shook his head, unsure of where this thought was coming from. He heard more noise coming from the back of the building, jolting him out of his reverie. He had turned to move when another thought struck him. You know, that's probably not anything to worry about. The banging subsided and the building fell silent again. Father Montrose looked back out the window at the figure. He doesn't seem too bad. He's just standing there, after all. Father Montrose found himself unable to look away from the figure. Why is he there? I mean, he seems like a decent person. Is he just trying to use the lighter to stay warm? Seems kind of inefficient.

Father Montrose stood paralyzed by his thoughts, staring at the stranger out his window. The man smiled slowly, a smile that never reached his eyes. And those eyes, Father Montrose thought, I can't look away! They're so fascinating! Smiling wider, the man tossed the lighter towards him. There was a loud woosh as the flame hit the side of the building, flames leaping up into view in the window pane. Still, Father Montrose stood transfixed as he stared at the other man. He didn't move, standing perfectly still in the middle of the kitchen area.

He could hear the smoke alarm going off on the other side of the building, but he didn't look away from the man on the lawn. Probably nothing to worry about. I should be fine right here. The world outside was bathed in a red glow, the smoke interfering with the shape of the figure beyond. Father Montrose was having trouble making out the man in the yard through the smoke and flames. He could still see his eyes, glowing in the light of the fire, a piercing gaze that seemed to reach into his very soul. Father Montrose smiled, then. All concern and worry left him. There's nothing to worry about. The man was just trying to help me stay warm. He even started a fire for me!

Father Montrose smiled, and while he couldn't see the man any more he was sure the man was smiling back. Even the eyes were gone as the flames grew, first obscuring the view out the window, then shattering the window. A furnace blast of heat struck Father Montrose as the flames lit the room in flickering red. So much more comforting than light bulbs, Father Montrose thought to himself, Natural light really is the best. In a daze, he reached behind and grabbed a chair from the kitchen table. Turning it properly, he sat down to watch the flames, hands resting calmly on his lap. Such a nice man, surely nothing I need to be concerned about.

The flames roared, catching the curtains and wallpaper as the fire spread. It flowed through the room, churning like rapids painted red as it consumed cabinets and cookware. Father Montrose smiled as he watched. So beautiful. What greatness hath the Lord wrought. The flames reached for him, flaring out from the kitchen wall. Father Montrose smiled as he stood, stepping forward and letting the fire embrace him like a long-lost lover.

The roof of the building collapsed as the charred and burning timbers finally gave way, sending a shower of sparks into the night air. Still smiling that mysterious smile, the man turned and walked down the street. As he passed the houses on either side of him, the lights snapped on – a progression of electric illumination following him like candles lit in prayer. The man didn't look back as the sound of sirens sounded in the distance—he had allowed the call to go out, after all. Still smiling, he got into vehicle and started the engine. He caught a brief glimpse of fire engines pulling up in front of the church. The rectory a funeral pyre, no longer a place of comfort. Still smiling, the man put the vehicle into gear and drove off into the night.

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