The man pulled the car over and parked. He had spent the day—the last several days, actually—in Saskatoon. On Thursday he had flown in from Toronto to plan his mother’s funeral. Now it was late Saturday, and he was sitting outside an old country church hours away from the city.
He hadn’t thought about his mother much in recent years. In fact, it had been about a decade since he’d last seen her. Oh, he had made sure she was well looked after: the home had very positive reviews. But her dementia was too much for him. One day—after years of visiting this crazy old woman who looked like, but wasn’t, his mother—he simply stopped.
It wasn’t a deliberate decision, exactly. He just never got around to booking the next ticket. By the time he realized it had been more than a year since he last saw her, he figured it was better this way. He moved on.
Her death caught him off guard as a result. He had said goodbye a long time ago. But being back in Saskatchewan, making arrangements for the funeral… That was different. It brought back memories he had long ago buried.
The funeral, such as it was, had taken place that morning in Saskatoon. It was a small affair—no pastor, no hint of anything religious. Few people knew his mother in recent years, and even fewer bothered to attend. In all, the event took forty-five minutes.
That left the man with time to spare, as his return flight wasn’t until the next afternoon. But he was restless. There was something he needed to do. Somewhere he needed to be. He couldn’t sit still, kept fidgeting with his keys.
At last he made a decision: he would spend his remaining hours in the province driving out to see his childhood home one last time.
Only, when he got there the house was gone. Of course it was gone, he thought. It had probably been demolished thirty years ago after his mother moved to the city. Stupid. Hours wasted. He should have realized.
He meant then to go back to the city. A few minutes later, when he reached the crossroads, he knew he should turn left—that was the direction of the highway. Instead, he turned right. Now here he was, parked at the corner of two gravel roads in the middle of nowhere, staring out at the church of his youth.
He tried to think. Why had he come here? Some shadow of a memory seemed to be playing at the corner of his mind, some… Thing… that if he could just retrieve he knew would make sense of everything.
He waved his hand to dispel the thought, like brushing aside a fly.
He examined the church from his window more clinically now. He was looking for… what, exactly? A chance to reconnect with his family roots? He snorted. Church had been his father’s thing, not his mother’s. After his father died, they just stopped going. He had been in his teens. What could he possibly be looking for here?
The man got out of the car and walked across the grass towards the church. It showed its age: the exterior, once gleaming white, was coated with years of dirt. The cross on top of the small bell tower was slightly askew. The sign read “Holy Cross Lutheran,” and indicated the years the congregation had opened and closed.
So the church is dead too, he thought—long dead. He wasn’t surprised. It had been a tiny congregation when he had lived here decades earlier. It wouldn’t have taken much for them to pack it in.
Still, he thought, it isn’t completely abandoned. He could see that the grass had been mowed fairly recently. Someone was still watching over the place. Maybe people still used the church once in a while for community events. Maybe weddings.
He decided to try the door. The wood was swollen at the bottom, but it came open after a firm tug. He stepped inside.
It was exactly as he remembered it. The altar, the pulpit, the baptismal font, the pews… they were all there. An open Bible lay on the lectern. Candlesticks still stood on the altar. Tucked away in the front left was the old pump organ he’d tortured more than once as a child. And over the whole scene a large crucifix loomed, brutal and demanding, sunlight from the window behind bathing it in fire.
He glanced to the left as he entered the sanctuary and was surprised to see the back wall still held several frames, most of them crooked. His baptism and confirmation photos must be among them. He turned away.
The furnishings were all as he remembered them, but the sanctuary had nevertheless aged. A fine coat of dust covered everything, and an unpleasant musty smell permeated the room. A large dark stain—presumably the result of a leaky roof—took up a good portion of the aisle floor. The wood creaked beneath his feet.
He took a seat in the fourth pew on the right without considering what he was doing. It had been the family pew. It seemed appropriate somehow. Then, he waited.
He waited ten minutes. Twenty. The sun outside began to set, and the light passing through the dirty windows cast a golden haze over everything. Thirty minutes passed. He felt anew the sense that he was forgetting something; somewhere in the back of his mind a dim recollection was struggling to form. A shadow from the cross began to spread across the floor.
He sighed. What was he doing here? What was he expecting? “A sign?” He asked it aloud, mockingly, and the sound of his own voice startled him. He hadn’t realized how quiet the church had been.
The sun sank lower, and the cruciform shadow grew.
He sat in silence a minute more, and then shook his head. Whatever he was searching for, he decided, it was not here. The man rose and began his way to the door.
Suddenly there was a crash behind him, and he spun around. One of the candlesticks had fallen from the altar and was now rolling slowly across the floor.
The man gasped and glanced wildly around. Blood rushed to his ears. His heart pounded.
The candlestick came to a stop. The man stood perfectly still, listening, waiting…
He swallowed. “Damn mice,” he muttered at last.
He glanced nervously at his watch, then at the door. He licked his lips. He had to go. Yes, he had to go now. It was still several hours’ drive back to Saskatoon. He should leave.
He looked back towards the altar. The shadow from the cross was stretching towards him with surprising rapidity.
He took a small step back. The shadow advanced. Several more steps. The shadow kept pace. His breath came quicker.
He reached the entryway and his hand darted for the knob. He pushed but the door stuck at the base. Suddenly the shadow rushed him, enveloping his feet, and the man panicked. He flung himself at the door. It gave way and he tumbled onto the grass outside.
He ran to his car. He left the church. He did not look back.
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for the International Lutheran Council. His writing has been featured in a variety of publications, both sacred and secular, including First Things, The National Post, Converge Magazine, The Mythic Circle, and more.