This Place Is Best Shunned

Allie and Rooster are heading down to Asheville for Rooster’s new gig, a cushy stint as artist-in-residence at UNC. Rooster is more of a con artist than maker of art, but Allie doesn’t mind, because he’s good-looking, charming, and values what she is: a girl with a keen eye for abandoned places and a knack for getting into them. But when they stumble upon an old backcountry church—the perfect backdrop for Rooster’s latest project—they discover that some “abandoned” places have a knack for keeping themselves occupied.

 

 

They hadn’t been back on the freeway long when Alexandra spotted the old church. It was off to the right and “way down in the holler,” so that the tip of its steeple just barely poked through the clawing, naked tree limbs. All she could really make out was the cross, bent and dangling like a passed-out girl draped over the back of a sofa.

Abandoned.

Allie was sure of this. She’d spent enough hours poking around enough forgotten places to know that there are a few things even the most desperately impoverished pillheads won’t let slide:

They won’t leave an American flag sitting in the mud.

They won’t let kids or dogs roam free in a cemetery.

And they won’t let the cross on their church dangle like a clumsy establishing shot in a no-budget horror flick.

That church was abandoned and forgotten.

“Hey.” She sat up, pulling her feet down from the dashboard of Rooster’s “Rolling Palace”: a rust-bucket Caprice Classic bought at a police auction for a dollar. “Take the next exit.”

“Why?” Rooster drawled, making no move to exit the freeway.

“There’s an old church down there—”

He rolled his eyes and sighed. “Churches is worse than kudzu down here, Funny Bunny.” The pet name annoyed her, but she allowed that it was apt: like a rabbit, Allie had a lifelong knack for hightailing it just before the hammer fell. “We head down there, we’re gonna end up in a long conversation or a loud argument.” Topic dismissed.

Allie glowered at him, equally exasperated with Rooster and herself. He was patronizing, but she found him delicious: Broad shoulders and sculpted back. Prismatic bloom of tattoos that surged down his neck and around his torso in Hokusai waves and Klimt serpents. Chiseled jaw with just the right amount of stubble. She knew the rasp of his stubble on her inner thighs, having countless times ridden that sparkle-pony grin of his into golden waves of self-annihilating warmth.

Allie found herself aroused by this train of thought. The abrupt itching ache of that arousal vexed her all the more. So she tweaked him. Speaking absentmindedly, almost as though she were unintentionally voicing a private thought:

“A place like that is perfect for ‘This Place is Best Shunned.’”

That caught Rooster’s attention. “Really?”

“This Place is Best Shunned” was the installation piece that had landed Rooster the gig that they were driving to, a cushy semester as artist in residence down at UNC Asheville.

And it hadn’t been Rooster’s idea, not really.

It was Allie’s.

#

Back in high school, long before she’d come to Chicago or met Rooster, Allie’d stumbled across a blurry PDF of a decades-old report while working on a class project. The report had been prepared by Sandia National Laboratories, who had commissioned a panel of experts—engineers and architects and linguists and archaeologists—to come up with some way to reliably mark nuclear-waste storage sites. The goal was to design some sort of markings that would make it clear to any and all future people that these were baaaaaad places to start digging for treasure.

The “period of regulatory concern” for these warnings? Ten thousand years.

Ten millennia.

That had impressed teenaged Allie. If you need a message to last thousands of years, you can’t just put up a billboard that says, “Don’t Dig!” After just a few centuries, any sign would fade or crumble—even stone tablets were worn smooth after a millennium or two. And even if such a sign did last, no one would be able to reliably make sense of what you’d written. Absent cultural context, would you know that a skull and crossbones meant “Poison!” and not “This Stuff Can Raise the Dead”?

The entire Sandia report had fascinated her: Sketches and drawings and schematics, detailed discussions of what shapes should be used or avoided, what materials would weather in what ways, which colors or textures might impart menace, how messages should be layered.

But what had truly grabbed Allie was the panel’s summary of what they wanted their markers to communicate:

            This is a message . . . part of a system of messages . . . pay attention to it!

            Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

            This place is not a place of honor . . . no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here . . . nothing valued is here.

            What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

            The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

            The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

            The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.

            The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically.

            This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

There was something in the structure of these nine lines, a gravity and rhythm that cleaved to Allie’s mind the same way that nursery rhymes and prayers always had:

            Bah-bah, black sheep, have you any wool . . .

            Four-and-twenty blackbirds backed in a pie . . .

            Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts . . .

            The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours . . .

            This is the church, this is the steeple; open the doors . . .

Such snippets indefatigably circled the drain in her brain, repeating like a distant 3 a.m. car alarm or a dog in a field endlessly barking at a phantom interloper.

Long after she’d forgotten every prayer she’d ever memorized and every syllable of her Torah portion, Allie could recite the Sandia report’s message from memory. Over time, it had replaced the Sh’ma—that centerpiece of Jewish prayer–as the “Watchword of Her Faith.”

Faith in what?

She had no idea.

But one sticky summer night Allie had been lounging on the roof of their crappy brownstone with Rooster, stoned as hell, watching the rust-belt sky slowly faded from blue to black, listening to the dipshits hoot ’n’ holler in Wrigley Field. She’d regaled Rooster with her tales of Sandia’s Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. She’d described the tumbled Stonehenges and crazy Boschian spike-nest earthworks the designers had proposed. She’d recited her Watchword. Rooster’d gotten his ole sparkle-pony grin, like a snake who’s puzzled out his way into the chicken coop.

Thus had been born “This Place is Best Shunned: A rumination on the place of Place in a post-Information landscape.”

Rooster had a guy he knew etch Allie’s Watchword into an ancient steel sliding door “salvaged” from a South Side factory, the letters six-inches tall, fresh steel bright against the patina and rust. The guy—who was named Lester, was positive he was “totally straight,” and had a desperate crush on Rooster—had then crafted a clever armature for this monolith, so that it could stand in the middle of a gallery space, seemingly precariously balanced on end. Rooster’d googled up photos of old prison cells and that abandoned town near Chernobyl, printed them on a really nice printer borrowed from (and never returned to) a really nice divorced lady with a breathtaking loft in Wicker Park, thumbtacked the glossies to the bare gallery walls, and that was that.

Did Rooster “steal Allie’s idea”? Allie supposed so. At his core, Rooster was a mooch and a sponge.

Was she trading away too much of herself too cheaply? Allie suspected that, too. But the awful truth was, precious or not, the ideas were part of herself and she didn’t really want any part of herself. She wanted Rooster. Part of that was Rooster’s body; she liked Rooster’s body quite a lot. But more than that, she liked the way the world worked when she was with Rooster. Allie had never been the sort of pretty face who gets free drinks or waved to the front of the line—but Rooster was. Waiters and waitresses left items off their tabs. Landlords cut them slack. Cops let them off with warnings. Doors opened for Rooster, with his scintillant charm and warm drawl and nonsense blather about his latest “installation” or “project” or “event.” Rooster was pretty enough to do something with her ideas, and she was not. Better to let the golden boy swipe them and then ride his coattails than to let them rot in her head.

Ironically, despite it all, Rooster seemed to have an honest heart. He didn’t just throw together “This Place is Best Shunned” and coast from there: over time, he’d steadily swapped out the generic copy-pasted Flickr photos for legit original photographs. He “borrowed” an expensive little Four Thirds digital camera off of some starry-eyed sucker and started tagging along with Allie and her gutterpunk buddies on their roof-and-tunnel urban explorations.

Were these good photos? Probably not. Even Allie could tell that the composition wasn’t anything to shout about, and Rooster was hopelessly ham-handed with editing software.

But his pictures were honest: they showed a thing he’d seen, the way he’d seen it, and as such they communicated the essential horror of human-made spaces denuded of their humans. Allie didn’t personally feel this horror—she liked the slightly damp, shadowed places where everyone basically left you alone. But she watched people as they wandered Rooster’s installation, and she saw that for most normal people, they felt what Rooster felt when he timidly tagged along with Allie and the gutterpunks: the terror of being in a place so forgotten that even God was no longer bothering to keep an eye on what might be going down there.

#

Rooster pretended to weigh the prospects of the abandoned down-holler church. “You think you can git’er open, Funny Bunny?”

Allie doubted it would even have doors. “I think I’ll manage,” she said.

Without a word Rooster sidled his “Rolling Palace” over to the highway exit.

It took longer to get down to the church than Allie’d anticipated. West Virginia’s crinkled, tree-choked topology made distances deceptive: A little tumbling rill seemed to be just up the road—until you crested the rise and saw that a deep gully lay between you and it; what would be a two-minute glide for a bird on the wing was an hour-long drive, crawling around switchbacks with crumbled edges. Meanwhile, a shack that seemed to be tucked waaaaay back in the woods would turn out to be perched precariously at the roadside, so close you could slap the siding without even leaning out your window.

They wound down into the holler, inching between limestone slabs and crumbling hairpin turns to arrive at the church’s leaf-blanketed dirt lot.

“This is the church,” Rooster sang, easing his car into park. Allie hopped out. “This is the steeple! Open the doors,” he crooned from the dooryard. “And there are the people.”

The church was in better shape than Allie’d anticipated. She rattled the doors hard. They were old and splintered, but solid. Allie considered the door lock. “I always hated that nursery rhyme,” she said absently.

Rooster raised his pricey little compact digital camera and snapped a photo of the broken cross, Dutch angled against the low blanket of clouds and grasping treetops. “’Cause it isn’t for Jewishes?” he asked.

“No,” Allie scoffed—although, as soon as Rooster’d said it, she immediately recognized the true answer was Yes. It always caught her flat-footed when Rooster did that: packaged some profound insight in such stupid words. He was like the handsome hillbilly Oprah.

But it was more than that. Weren’t the rhyme and accompanying gestures inherently creepy? The interlaced knuckle roof of the sanctuary. The motile steeple gathering itself from within. The tall bone pillar doors. And, jeez, the congregants were faceless, limbless, writhing worms dangling from the roof.

“I think it works fine for the Jewish,” Rooster went on. “Look,” he called.

She glanced back to see he’d laced his fingers together, camera left dangling on its strap from his elbow. “This here’s the—” Rooster paused, groping around in his head. “—it’s the synagogue”—he steepled his index fingers—“and this is the steeple; open the doors–”

“Synagogues don’t have steeples.” Allie hated that it sounded like she was pouting.

“If they don’t have a steeple,” Rooster asked, “then where do they keep the bells?”

Allie finally really looked at him. He wasn’t joking around. “Jesus, Rooster, we don’t have church bells, either.”

Rooster nodded. “I see y’r problem, Funny Bunny: no steeple, no people.” He wriggled the people worshipping in his unfolded finger church. “And you gotta have people, or then what the hell are the fingers?”

Allie glared at him. “You’re lucky that you’re pretty, Rooster.”

He nodded with a smile. “I am indeed, Ms. Fleischermann.”

The car keys clipped to his belt jangled like cowboy spurs as Rooster mounted the sagging porch. He cupped one hand to the narrow window running along the left side of the doorframe and peered inside.

“This is the church . . .” Rooster repeated under his breath, the perfect curl of his blond forelock just tickling the delicate, dirty window glass. He frowned, unable to see past the gloom-backed glare on the glass. “This is the steeple . . .”

Allie returned her attention to the cheap lock securing the abandoned church’s peeling double doors. She’d done locksport back in prep school, and immediately recognized this lockset: a standard 1950s Kwikset deadlatch knob lock. She was positive she could bump it or rake it, maybe even single-pin pick it—if she had the tools, which she did not.

Allie inventoried the pockets of her old denim jacket, hoping for a bobby pin or paper clip.

If the church had been standing on a normal city block, she’d probably have been able to scrounge up something to defeat the lock. One time, back in Chicago, she’d gotten into an old, abandoned school using a street-sweeper bristle she’d found in the gutter, snapped in half and notched out with the file on a pair of nail clippers. That trick had cemented her reputation as a sort of urban exploring Houdini among the art students and crusties she palled around with there, including Rooster.

. . . open the doors . . .” Rooster singsonged again, fogging the hazy glass of the narrow sidelight window. He polished the glass with the ratty cuff of his bleach-splattered flannel, cupped his hands to the glass, and tried peeking in again. “. . . and there are the people . . .” He sighed absently as he lifted his camera to the window, thumbing it on as he did so. He pressed the snout of the lens to the glass and started fiddling with controls, enhancing the image on the little LCD view window, pumping up the available light to offer him a little insight into the interior, Allie supposed.

She wandered back toward the car, scanning the dirt lot for a twist of baling wire or a windshield wiper blade. Nothing. She rummaged through Rooster’s Caprice. The glove box disgorged a lot of take-out napkins, a clutch-head screwdriver, a black plastic comb, an orphaned chopstick—nothing useful. She stopped when she came across a factory-sealed cardboard box:

Oxycodone Hydrochloride

Tablets, USP 30mg

100 tablets

She tipped the box side to side, listening to the pills rattle like beans in a maraca. Some of the Chicago gutterpunks had been into smoking oxy. They’d tear off a square of tin foil and hold it at a little angle, half a pill perched at the tip of this foil ramp. Then they’d use a lighter to cook the pill from beneath. It’d sizzle and slide down the metal, loosing a twist of noxious smoke and leaving a brown trail like a snail wiping its ass. Hunched over with a snip of drinking straw they’d hoover up that smoke, faces red with exertion, slick with a slime of sweat.

Watching this made her think of a sweaty orangutan trying to suck its own dick. They called it “chasing the bean,” and it looked just as stupid as it sounded. Allie wasn’t one to begrudge anyone what it took to get through the day, but jeezus, people—there’s better ways to die trying. She put the pills back in Rooster’s glovebox, closed it up, then sat for a moment fiddling with the lonely chopstick.

On the one hand, she was glad Rooster had the pills, because it meant he probably wasn’t fucking anyone to lock in his gig in Asheville. Intellectually, she understood that such oily ministrations were strictly transactional. But she was jealous of Rooster’s body, and more so of his attention. Seeing him butter up chubby dudes in self-consciously ironic eyeglasses made her want to put her fist through plate glass.

But the oxy also made her nervous. It was like having a cracked mason jar of uranium in the glovebox. Or a loaded gun. It felt like—

Rooster screamed.

Allie was out of the car like a shot, still clutching the useless chopstick.

Up on the porch Rooster’s pricey camera lay in pieces, forgotten. Rooster had hold of both door knobs. He gave a violent yank, then pounded his right shoulder into the rough wood. The doors held fast.

“Rooster!” she cried, clomping up the porch steps to join him. “What are—?”

He stepped back, squared his shoulders, then kicked once, hard. His creased work boot met the door just right, exactly as she’d taught him, immediately below the knob. Those doors should have flown open.

They did not.

Rooster was at the other side window now. It looked as delicate as the ice on an October puddle. He punched the age-rippled glass, but it held, sure as the security glazing fronting a shuttered cop shop.       He cupped his hands to the glass and shouted:

“It’s OK! We’re coming! We’re coming!

Allie grabbed Rooster’s shoulder. “What are you doing?”

“One of ’em is still alive,” Rooster said. He’d lost his sparkle-pony grin, leaving behind the terrified child that had been the seed of this cocky man. “Ya gotta open the door.”

She stepped forward, pressed her face to the narrow gap between the double doors, and finally saw what Rooster had seen:

The church interior was gray twilight. Somewhere up in the rafters Allie heard the beating of wings—but she couldn’t see if it was bats or birds, because the ceiling was hidden behind dozens and dozens of lynched bodies.

All women.

All barefoot.

Legs dangled down from among limp skirts. Toes pointed like ballerinas strangled mid-jeté. Mercifully, she could see no faces: the bodies were packed too tightly, the light too poor.

Unhelpfully, Allie’s mind chimed in:

                                    This is the church,

                                    this is the steeple;

                                    Open the door,

                                    and there are The People.

Her gorge rose.

What had they stumbled into? What she saw simply couldn’t be.

Even in a country that gave so few shits about the lives of women and girls you’d hear about dozens gone missing at once.

Could she and Rooster have wandered into some long-active serial killer’s trophy room?

No.

These legs were plump and fresh, not the desiccated sticks of corpses collected over years.

Plump and fresh, Allie’s brain repeated, fanning out an obscene collage of supermarket butcher counters and “Get your bikini body!” spreads in glossy checkout-lane magazines.

She gagged, burping up a hot mist of Fritos and truck-stop vanilla cappuccino.

Then she saw movement, way down near the front of the church, by the glowing stained glass window. Feebly, one of the corpses kicked, skinny child’s legs poking from beneath the hem of a dull gray skirt, bare pink toes flexing and grasping like little mole snouts seeking the light and air of day.

“One of ’em is still alive,” Rooster had said.

Alive, but barely.

Allie stumbled away from the doors, mind reeling. And in that moment, her shocked brain as empty as the screen of a TV plugged into a dead socket, she finally saw what she should have seen immediately:

Yes, the church’s door was locked. Yes, that lock was a standard deadlatch lockset. And, yes, she had no means to pick that lock.

But the lock was a meaningless distraction: the broad double doors had warped in their frames over the years, leaving the deadlatch only half engaged. In locksport parlance, that latch was still “live.” A live latch could be slipped with almost anything: a credit card, a pocket knife, a comb . . .

A chopstick.

Working wholly independent of her racing brain, Allie’s fingers threaded the bamboo stick into the gap between the church’s double doors and brought it up against the latch with a practiced slide and wiggle.

The doors popped open, swinging out as though spring-loaded.

Somewhere far in the back of her head, Allie’s brain registered the smell. It wasn’t what she’d expected. No stink of decomposition or suffering or terror. She’d read in countless horror stories and Westerns and true-crime books that hanged people shit their pants, but there was no stink of shit, and the floors were clean. Likewise, there was none of the musty dusty mildew of abandoned buildings. There was hardly any smell at all, really. Just something light and spicy, like cinnamon and gunpowder.

Rooster rushed in as soon as the doors opened, calling out to the feebly struggling girl.

But Allie’s feet would not move.

Everything about this was deeply wrong. The smell was wrong. The cleanness of the floors—no obvious grit or dust, no leaves or squirrel nests, no water damage—was wrong.

Most worrisome: the doors were wrong. If they were warped enough to keep the deadlatch from latching, they should have sprung open with Rooster’s kick. Rooster stood almost six foot three, and was all muscle. The door wasn’t terrible, but it was still just wood. It should be splinters.

Almost as if the doors were designed to select for clever entrants, rather than simply brawny ones.

An absurd thought, but . . .

A shiver riffled across the many dangling legs in the church, like those amber waves of grain driven by the big winds that course unmolested down the middle of America.

But the church air wasn’t like that. It was stiflingly still, hot and cramped and moist.

Allie stood rooted in the doorway.

She felt extremely distant from what was going on. Scattered and fluttering parts of her mind twittered and tweeted, panic-driven, sure that she was going into shock and must flee before the fear alone killed her. Nonetheless, she stood still, like the hawk-stalked rabbit who coils into stillness before bursting to escape. The deep rabbit, that funny bunny, knows that prey must stay still and watch. And so Allie did.

Rooster advanced, low as a firefighter, yelling reassuring nonsense in a deeply un-reassuring voice. He stooped to stay clear of the dangling feet, which swayed despite the stillness of the air, like reeds showing the passage of a carp or turtle under the water.

“I’m comin’!” he choked out. “I’ll get you!”

At the sound of his voice the skinny legs up near the front of the church kicked more frantically.

The dead big toe of a chubby foot playfully nicked Rooster’s ear as he passed. His mouth twisted in disgust and he dropped to all fours, scrambling along like a wolf-boy in a sideshow. “Comin’!” he cried. “I’m comin’!”

Another shiver riffled and swirled the dangling legs over Rooster’s head in the still, still air. The rabbit in Allie’s brain knew that was Not Ok. Reeds that riffled when there was no breeze did so because something sly moved among them.

She wanted to call out a warning—of what, she didn’t really know—but she couldn’t, because a rabbit has no voice in life. Just legs and eyes and ears.

Rooster reached the dying girl.

Allie’s single chopstick slipped from her numb fingers. It hit the porch with a tick and a tacky-tacky-tack, bouncing and jittering its way across the church boards. The skirts and legs nearby stirred, feet and toes flexing and stretching grotesquely toward this new skittering.

Allie saw—because the rabbit is all eyes and all ears. But she still couldn’t utter a word of warning, because the rabbit’s only words are its dying scream.

Rooster, wretched Rooster, had reached the struggling girl. He wrapped his arms around her legs just above the knees and lifted, obviously hoping to release the pressure on her unseen noose and buy time to somehow get her down. His eyes frantically darted around the crowded shadows up above the dangling legs, looking for the face of the dying girl, trying to suss out how she was lashed up.

With his eyes focused up into the shadows, he did not see the girl’s ankles and pink-padded feet and perfect little toes ooze and reach, like seeking leeches in dark water.

It suddenly dawned on Allie: All those bare feet, and not a single callus. All those skirts, all the same dingy gray, the same anonymous texture, the same formless frumpy cut. All those legs—but not really legs at all. Just something that would look like legs if you didn’t look hard. Something that hung boneless, deceptively lifeless. Biding.

Camouflage.

The rabbit deep in Allie had seen enough.

She burst from her motionless cover.

But unlike the funny bunny, who hightails it away, Allie dove into this hunting place.

She rushed forward, scrabbling on all fours. She was well below all the things masquerading as bare feet, yet still felt them brushing and caressing her body, plucking at the copper buttons on her denim jacket, at her wrinkled shirttail. Something caught in her hair. She dropped to her belly, tearing out the dye-fried hank. Allie combat-crawled to Rooster, stretched high, took hold of his belt, and then dropped all her weight onto this grab handle, tumbling him to the floor.

“The girl!” Rooster shouted in Allie’s face.

“The tentacles!” she shouted back, shocked to hear her own voice after so many silent centuries spent at the door.

Rooster’s eyes—huge and round and shockingly white—rolled in their sockets, taking in the room, the dark writhing, the legs that were not legs at all, the skirts that had never been skirts, but rather cunning flaps of skin—or maybe not even skin. But certainly cunning.

In a single chaotic heave Allie and Rooster burst past the church doors, tentacles seething out after them. Rooster’s feet tangled on the threshold, but Allie would not let him fall. They tumbled down the steps together, scrambled up from the dirt, and sprinted until they reached the heavy metal of Rooster’s Caprice. The pair took shelter behind the car’s trunk, holding each other, panting. Rooster curled tight around Allie, his body shielding her like a muscular shell, his face hidden in her curls. Allie craned around to peek back from behind the car’s flaking rear quarter panel.

The church was dreadful. The doorway was choked with tentacles—or some approximation of tentacles. Not real tentacles, Allie thought. There were no suckers, and the movement wasn’t right, not like an octopus or squid, not . . . muscular. These things weren’t anything natural. They were inconsistent in a way nature abhorred. One moment they blorbed and flowed like a lava lamp. The next they blossomed like a dark flower in time lapse, then collapsed like fractal origami run in reverse. A single tentacle-thing might start out matte black and rubbery, then grow nubby, then metamorphose into something sharp and angular with a multihued sheen like oil on a parking lot puddle.

She watched these unnatural appendages grope forward, gripping a tree, a rock, a branch. Finding these neither warm nor flesh, they released them and moved on.

They were seeking.

But they were also attenuating. Pseudopods that had been thigh-thick hanging in the church rafters were now stretched out pencil thin, nearly played out, and still yards from the car.

Safe, Allie saw. For now.

Words tumbled and jabbered from Rooster’s gasping mouth, steaming the back of her neck. “They . . . howf? . . . fucking Jay-zus! They . . . howfa . . . howfar . . . ?”

Allie got the gist of what he wondered: How far can they reach?

“I don’t know,” Allie said, her eyes never leaving the straining limbs, now stretched down to a mess of straining predatory spaghetti and still a dozen feet away. “It can’t be much further,” she opined dubiously. “But better safe than sorry. Let’s get outta here—?”

“I can’t—” Rooster gasped.

“I’ll drive—”

“—I can’t move,” he finished. “I can’t get no closer.”

Allie finally tore her eyes from the fascinatingly awful thing straining through the church door, and looked at Rooster. He was curled small and pale, chin to chest, eyes clenched desperately tight, like the fists of a baby knotted in the tangles of a night terror.

“I can’t move,” he repeated. His voice was so small and apologetic, it broke her. “I can’t even look.”

“It’s OK,” she soothed, patting him on the head like a dog terrified of the garbage truck. She was already spinning up a plan. She could lead him away, straight away from the church and down the road until all this was too far to see, then jog back with his keys—

Her train of thought was broken by a rending thud.

“Whasthat?!” Rooster shrieked, eyes wide and rolling, but glassy, looking everywhere, seeing nothing.

Allie popped up to peer over the car. The building was crooked on its foundation, sagging over the cinder blocks at one front corner. The reaching tips were at least two yards closer than they’d been.

“Oh shit,” she gasped.

What?” Rooster whispered.

She had barely begun to formulate an answer when the very bad, no good thing happened:

The church opened.

Later she wasn’t precisely sure what she’d seen—it was only a glimpse before she realized she and Rooster were sprinting through the pines, the car far behind, the church less so and gaining.

But the church had opened, of that she was certain. Or, maybe more properly, it had unfolded: the roof split tidily along the ridge, like a june bug opening its hard wing covers before taking flight. It had folded back. But no wings were revealed. Inside the church there was a vast dark canyon, an openness much, much larger than that entire building could have possibly allowed. The anti-colored tentacular extrusions were rooted to the interior of the roof, packed as densely as mushrooms flushing up through a tiny crack at the back of a damp cupboard. They strained and stretched toward the sky as the roof broke and blossomed, like sprouted seeds seeking the sun behind the gloom.

And there was light.

The light was awful, because it made no sense.

It was a blindingly bright unlight, searing in intensity but somehow dark in color, like the negative of a photograph of a blazing bonfire. It shone out on them like sunlight focused to a pinprick by a magnifying glass. Allie was saturated in the nonlight. It was hot as noon on the Vegas strip. She felt that heat drenching her guts as much as her skin. It was a filthy feeling, a leering degradation, as violating as the skinner’s knife.

The light stripped her bare.

The church rolled as it unfolded, mercifully obscuring this black glow. Then it rose up, standing on stumpy, pulsing legs formed by the knotting of some of its infinitely black creepers. The ground fizzed and popped where the bright shadow of its heartlight fell: acorns and seed and grubs and worms, bursting as the dark light overfilled them.

And then, like a movie jump cut, Rooster and Allie were sprinting through the trees, underbrush snagging on her jacket, tearing Rooster’s old flannel shirt. She stumbled on a root, clawed at the dirt, and was back up before she knew she’d gone down, never having let loose of Rooster’s wrist, his pulse thundering under her fingertips like a double kick drum. He was gasping for air, hyperventilating in the midst of a dead-out sprint, every breath a mindless prayer:

Jay-zus! Jay-zus! Jay-zus! Jay-zus! . . .”

The ground thrummed with pursuing steps, stately, yet gaining on them. Trees thudded down behind them amid the protests of birds and squirrels. Needles and leaves peppered their backs like shrapnel.

Allie was babbling as she ran, yelling that she had a plan, not to worry, she Had. A. Plan.

Rooster probably couldn’t hear her over the racket—but that was fine, because she had no plan; she just wanted him to calm the fuck down and use his breath to fuel his legs.

The implacable rhythm of the church’s pursuit faltered. Allie glanced back again, then clamped down on Rooster’s arm and pulled him to a halt, almost taking him off his feet. “Look!” she hissed, pointing. “Look!”

He looked. The church had become wedged between a shed-sized hunk of limestone and a clutch of ragged little pines. Two, then three tentacles lashed out at the pines, tearing off branches, mindlessly scrabbling to clear enough space to pass. The walls of the church ground against the trees, snapping branches and stripping bark, loosing a rain of mortar and paint chips from its creaky carapace—

“It’s stuck,” Allie marveled.

Then the steeple loomed above trees and stone like a scorpion’s stinger. It struck the boulder with terrible fluidity. Chips flew in all directions, pinging off the church, peppering Rooster and Allie, who shielded their eyes. When they looked again, the boulder was scarred, a jagged chunk missing. The steeple had lost some shingles. Pale pine showed where the cladding was scraped away. Scarred, but not deterred.

It struck again, this time taking aim for the trees, to greater effect: one pine split as though lightning-struck. The steeple lunged again and again and again.

Allie and Rooster ran. The trees thinned as they climbed the holler. The thunderous steps resumed.

 

#

Allie had been a child athlete—a gymnast—and a good hard run had always cleared her mind. Her circumstances in the holler were new, but the effect remained the same.

Her legs pumped. Her breath surged in and out like wind-driven waves devouring the sandy shore. Amid all that furious motion, the deep, clear part of her—the stone-still rabbit that watched the hawk—meditated on what she had seen in the forest:

First it considered the pale pine beneath the clapboards, the shed shingles, and chipped brick. The church, it concluded, was just a church. The occult awfulness that pursued them wasn’t a mimic pretending to be a church. It had simply taken sanctuary in a church, like a hermit crab or caddis fly larva, opportunistically scavenging to hide in plain sight.

Second, this monster was not an all-crushing juggernaut, exempt from limitations. It could not rush into the briar patch unmolested. It tripped and tangled and struggled like any other beast. It could be slowed, if not stopped.

Third, and most importantly, if this thing could have gotten out of this ravine, it would have done so ages ago. Allie recalled the ranks of big split limestone slabs they’d threaded the Caprice past to get down to the gravel lot. The church couldn’t possibly squeeze through those narrow gaps.

In other words, Rooster and Allie were not hopelessly fucked. If they made it out of the holler, they were in the clear—apart from being stranded at the ass-end of nowhere with nothing but shoe leather to take them back to civilization.

“Rooster,” she huffed and puffed. “Rooster, we just gotta get up this hill . . .”

But Rooster was falling behind, winded, nearly spent. She grabbed his hand and yanked. “C’mon,” she hissed. “We’re so close. Just uphill a little and we’re home free.”

She felt hesitation and doubt telegraph up her arm from his fearful hand.

The trees had thinned farther as the rise grew steeper, allowing the church to gain on them, elephantine stompers taking long strides.

“We can make it,” she panted. “We got this.”

Rooster coughed a ragged “Y’okay” and rallied. But it was a brief burst, and then he was falling behind again. The problem wasn’t his legs or lungs; it was his brain. There was no deep rabbit in Rooster, no big-eyed prey to take the wheel when the universe tilted. A rabbit can be chased by a terrier or a wolf or a grizzly bear or a tiger or the Predator that ate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s buddies, and it’s all the same: a controlled freeze, then off like a shot or die in agony. The universe has no nasty surprises for the rabbit.

But Rooster wasn’t a rabbit, and never had been. He wasn’t even a rooster. He was a wolf, and the wolf is long accustomed to a forest full of dogs and rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks and lost little girls. If, one day, the wolf looks up from licking his paws and finds himself all alone, staring straight down the toothy maw of a demon 22,000 miles tall, the wolf’s mind is blown; he gets scooped up like a hot dog at a church picnic. The rabbit, meanwhile, just skitters away and safely tucks under a porch, living to run another day.

The hillside was getting steeper. Rooster would not make it, not much longer.

Dead ahead the first chunk of limestone, a lone outlier, loomed up behind a copse of stout old oaks like a backstop behind home plate. More than a dozen feet high, the stony outcropping protruded from the steep hillside like a bedrock nose from an earthen brow. This stone cliff face was not salvation—there were still at least another hundred yards of steep hillside before the slabs grew numerous enough to stop the church—but it was inspirational.

Allie cut wide to the right, skirting the stone wall and heading up the slope, yanking Rooster along behind her. The church followed, leaping and galloping to eat up the distance. Allie and Rooster passed the top of the stone ledge. So did the church, fast on their heels

“Left!” Allie shouted at Rooster, juking to the side and dragging him along. The two carved a wide U-turn and swooped back downhill, gravity at their backs, hell-bent for the crumbly edge. “Twelve feet isn’t bad!” she screamed. “Not a bad drop!”

“What?”

“The leaf litter is soft as gym mats!” she instructed. “Keep your knees together! Let ’em fold into the touchdown! Roll downhill!”

“What?!”

But there was no time: they had reached the end of their rope. The church was coming. Hands clasped tightly together, they leapt.

The hang time was eternal. Cool, moist air seemed to hold them aloft, even as it rushed past. Allie, true to form, touched down almost completely silently, legs long and soft, flat feet seeking the cool earth. She sank into the touchdown and executed three perfect forward rolls, smoothly tumbling ’round from right shoulder to left hip, then popping up into a solid landing almost despite herself, damp leaves clinging to her hair and back and butt.

Rooster wasn’t there. She looked dumbly at her hand, convinced she was holding his, but seeing it was empty.

Rooster was still on top of the rock, toes frozen at the limestone lip, arms pinwheeling to keep balance.

“JESUS, ROOSTER! DROP! DROP QUICK!” she shouted

Or thought she did, forgetting that the rabbit makes no sound, apart from its cries once it’s caught. And Allie was not yet caught.

Rooster was caught.

The church was upon him. Angular black extrusions stretched out ahead of the onrushing building. They lashed around Rooster’s broad arms, took hold of his muscled thighs, twined around his graceful white throat, yanked him back deep into its searing dark maw, and then folded closed around him.

The terrible church skidded, sheering off saplings and brush, throwing up a wake of bricks and dead leaves and dirt. Its steeple stinger lashed around, digging at the dirt behind it, fighting its forward momentum with all its unearthly might.

To no avail. Progress cannot be stopped: the church skidded off the ledge.

But it did not hit the ground. Just as Allie had hoped, the building fell only a few feet before becoming wedged between the stout old oaks and the limestone face. The trees creaked and cracked and cried out. Acorns and branches and bark and a few wrist-thick limbs showered down. But these grandmother oaks held fast, as did the church. It was pinned to the rock face, still at least ten feet from the ground. It hung door down, peaked roof pinched between stone and trees. The steeple, shorn from the living body of the structure, was spilled down the slope, a shattered wreck.

Apart from the loss of a man she actually loved, and who actually loved her in his own half-competent fashion, it had all gone much better than she could have hoped:

The church was trapped. It was no longer visible from the freeway, no longer an attractive nuisance—hardly accessible at all.

Allie stood rooted on the spot for a long time, taking it all in—but also not taking it in at all. She had been so sure she had him. She could still feel his hand in her empty hand, like phantom limb syndrome, but with someone else’s limb.

The forest was quiet save for the creaking of the church’s double doors, which hung open, swaying in the damp breeze like the trapdoors dangling under a hangman’s gallows.

She imagined Rooster in there, wrapped up in motile black spider’s silk, like a grasshopper in a web. She imagined him hanging like a side of beef. She imagined him tacked up like a hide on a wall.

“Rooster?” she called quietly, watching the doorway as warily as a child watches the dark entrance to a wasp’s nest. “Rooster?”

She imagined him dead. And then, much worse, she imagined him still alive.

But she could see nothing. Not from where she stood, not without stepping into the church’s groaning shadow.

Allie twisted her mouth shut and cautiously approached, craning her neck for a better angle. She peered up. What she saw gave her such vertigo that her knees buckled. Looking up through the swaying doors, she found herself looking down on Rooster from above, like a drone shot in a movie.

Rooster stood in a vast plain drenched in an awful sunset bloodlight. His head was on a swivel, looking every way but up, shoulders heaving with fast, shallow breaths.

“Oh jeezohfuckingjeezoh—” he muttered, his voice a harsh whisper.

Rooster was prey now.

But the extrusions—let alone whatever they were attached to—were nowhere in sight.

“Rooster!” she cried.

His head snapped up, and the expression that evolved across his features—she couldn’t break it into its constituent parts. It was, like the dark extrusions, a continuous flow: surprise through hope and pleasure, then settling into a sick despair.

“Allie!” Barely mouthing the words, his voice a faint rasp. “Don’t move, Funny Bunny. Don’t. Move. I’ll get you down.”

She could hardly hear him. “I’m fine where I am,” she shouted. “We gotta get you out!”

He cringed, his face twisting with disgust and a terror both abject and complete.

Allie didn’t understand at first. Then she saw the silent, colorless tips creeping past the doorjamb, seeping and weaving back into her world. The effect was hypnotic, like watching flames race across a puddle of kerosene, or the weaving head of a hunting viper. The last hour had been so long and exhausting. The flow of these dark, infinitely jointed fingers was so, so smooth and soothing.

Allie was caught.

Not her body, not yet. She was snared worse: the sight of the predator from between the void stars had caught her mind.

“Heyt!” Rooster cracked the word off hard as a slap, and that broke Allie’s terrified reverie. She looked up through the doors—which was down into the plain—and saw that Rooster, at long last, had recovered some semblance of himself.

“Heyt!” he scolded the monster like a man scolding a wayward dog. “Heyt!” He whistled twice, high and sharp—a trick she’d seen him use in the street, drawing even mean pit bulls up short with his voice of command. “Heyt! Eyes on me.”

Allie’s eyes snapped to Rooster. But he wasn’t talking to her, she realized. He was talking to the extrusions. And they listened.

“Come ’ere!” he barked. “Heyt! Heyt! Come!

And they came to him. Or at him. Either way, their withdrawal from her world loosened Allie’s terrified paralysis.

“Rooster!” Allie screamed—screamed so loud she’d feel it for the next three days, like she’d deep-throated a loofah—“No!”

Rooster ignored her; he was clucking his tongue and calling to the dark, seeking limbs. All the while his hand was working at his waistline, fiddling with his car keys.

And then he snapped into action, doing many things all at once:

He got his keys unclipped.

He threw them, underhand and hard, straight into the doorway.

He shouted:

“Shut these fucking doors, Funny Bunny!”

The keys slowed as they neared the doorway, reaching their apex, threatening to plummet back to that awful field in a galaxy far, far away. Then they crossed the invisible frontier between worlds and slingshotted ahead, striking Allie’s shoulder with a tooth-rattling wallop. They left a dark galaxy of a bruise she’d only notice three days later, when it was already starting to go yellow at the edges.

Meanwhile, the living black strands enveloped Rooster in a helical knot that spun and tightened, like a Chinese finger trap.

Rooster’s keys jangled to the ground. Allie intended to drop down, scoop them up, and get the hell out of there as fast as her little legs could carry her. Instead, she took hold of one of the long stout branches freshly sheared from the steadfast oaks.

Driven by Rooster’s last request, she swung the long branch up in a pair of hard arcs, delivering a walloping blow first to one door, and then the other: thwhack-whack! The doors shivered in their frame, locked tight.

Allie collapsed there, in the shadow of the church.

Only later would she make sense of what she’d seen just before those doors latched for the last time.

#

Crickets and peepers were singing when she found herself again. She was lying in the wet leaves. All around her the bare white trees strained up toward the clouds, pointing out nothing in particular. Rooster’s keys were poking her in the butt. She winced as she rolled over—her whole body felt like a freshly slapped face—and took hold of them, clutching so hard the teeth bit into the meat of her palm.

It was the first time she’d ever held his car keys—“The King of the Road,” he drawled in her mind. “Don’t relinquish the keys to his palace, Funny Bunny.”

Allie discovered that the keychain had an embossed Narcotics Anonymous one-year clean-and-serene chit. The gold foil had long ago worn off the glow-in-the-dark plastic. Only then did it dawn on her: Rooster didn’t like weed, and she’d never actually seen him drink. He hadn’t ever made a big thing about it, just never seemed thirsty when folks were having beers. At the bar he’d only drink when he was buying, an anonymous glass of something fizzy on the rocks with a wedge of lime or a twist of orange. It had never occurred to her that this might have been straight club soda, or that his “rum and Coke” had been just plain old Coke.

Had been rang in her head. Not might be, because Rooster was now thoroughly past tense.

She sat in the leaves, her butt getting soggy, and warily pondered the crooked church up in its tree.

Having the door shut and locked was good. But it wasn’t good enough. After all, it had been locked when they got there. That had just made getting in all the more tempting.

She headed down to Rooster’s car, still parked alongside the dirt lot which now stood next to nothing but a torn and gaping foundation. There was a Bic lighter in the ashtray. She leaned through the window, grabbed it, and then popped the trunk.

She remembered Rooster’s retort, back in Chicago, when they’d been about to set sail on this little jaunt and she’d complained there was no room for her duffel bag in the back of his car:

“You and this here Caprice,” he’d sparkled, “are my two favorite ladies, on account ya both got excellent junk in y’r trunk.”

Allie wiped her eyes roughly with the cuff of her jacket. She rummaged in the trunk and came up with a brand-new package of stiff cotton clothesline. The Caprice’s gas cap was behind the license plate. She split the plastic shrink-wrap on the clothesline and started feeding it into the fuel tank—two feet, three, six, eight. When she lost track she stopped, then methodically reeled the fuel-soaked line back out, winding it and the rest of the cotton rope around the end of Rooster’s ice scraper. The fumes stung her eyes and nose, making her nauseous. But they also brought her back to the immediate moment, and the few tasks that remained.

Allie trudged back up the rise to stand at the lip of the limestone ledge. The windowless clapboard wall of the inverted church was well out of reach, the brickwork of the cracked and crooked foundation a few feet above her head. She sparked the lighter at the torch. The fumes coughed into life, unfurling like a dragon’s sneeze. She reflexively tossed the torch onto the building. The dry boards took quickly.

Allie watched for a long, long time. She didn’t have anywhere in particular to be. The licking, lapping flames were hypnotic and soothing. They cleared her mind, leaving an empty socket like the damp, salty gap left by a knocked-out tooth.

It started to mist, then rain in earnest. She didn’t really care. The fire warmed her.

The church creaked and groaned, threatening to slip loose. Soon, the creaking and groaning were joined by popping and crackling, then the thick panting of a fire that has taken hold and now draws its own breath.

But these weren’t all she heard.

There was also the big wind that riffled the lurid plains behind the doors, smelling of cinnamon and gunpowder. And there was the silken rustling of countless feelers first exploring the door and walls, then battering them.

And there were also animal sounds of suffering. Human sounds. She closed her mind to these. It was easy: her hacking sobs, wailing for Rooster’s loss, were extremely loud.

The church burned and burned, much longer than made any sense. The live oaks singed and baked, but did not catch. Chunks of church fell into the sopping leaves and mud below, where they sizzled, steamed, smoldered, and cooled.

Finally, job done, eyes dry and itching, Allie gingerly dragged herself back down the hill to Rooster’s Caprice.

It took a while to get the front seats to slide forward—Rooster had been long-legged, and a combination of Midwestern winters and disuse had rusted the lever that released the bench seats to slide back and forth. Once she finally got the seat to where she could reach the pedals, she discovered a new problem:

True to form, Rooster had tossed her the wrong keys.

She could open his storage locker and mailbox and bike lock back in Chicago, but this car wasn’t going anywhere. She stared stupidly at the ignition key cylinder. All that time in locksport, all that time on YouTube and Google with scraps of spring steel and metal files, all those hours working all manner of plain and exotic picks—but she’d never learned to hot-wire a car. It had simply never interested her. She didn’t even know where to start.

That night, curled in Rooster’s throne behind the wheel, Allie smoked the first of the pills.

She contemplated the little factory-sealed cardboard box for a long time, tipping it slowly, listening to the pills shift like seeds in a rainstick. Then she scoured the glove box and floorboards, eventually coming up with a thick milkshake straw and a scrap of aluminum foil. She still had the lighter from earlier.

She sucked the smoke down. It burned, like smoking a sugar-coated twist of used garbage bag. Then it hit.

It came on fast, but not like other drugs she’d done—which had mostly been uppers, occasionally crushed and snorted. Those hit like an event. They washed over the body, pushing you up, like surfing an electric wave that kept growing and surging, an orgasm of enormous girth that never quite crested.

Smoking the pills was different, a dark and euphoric revelation. It blossomed, unfolding up from her lungs to engulf her. The whole world slowed, then stopped, and in its stopping she could see that behind the world was a vast sea of absolute contentment in which the past and present were one long particolored smear about which she gave no fucks.

Allie sank in to that dim smear, letting those waters close over her head and encase her like mellow yellow Jell-O.

Had she been asked, she would have said she smoked the pills in order to forget Rooster’s screams behind the church doors—high and yelping, like a dog caught in the gears of some huge piece of industrial equipment.

That wasn’t true. Shameful as it was, she’d buried and mourned Rooster before she’d even lit her Molotov ice scraper. She knew this made her seem like a heartless bitch, but it was just the way she was made. Allie was a survivor type. The last three and a half millennia had been like a thoroughbred breeding program for the Children of Israel: those who had to stop to mourn were turned to pillars of salt, and thus had no descendants to carry whatever gene caused some to collapse when they’d better keep walking.

No. She didn’t smoke the pills to forget Rooster. She would never forget Rooster.

She smoked the pills to forget—even if only momentarily—what she’d seen through the church door in those final moments before she slammed them shut.

She had, of course, seen Rooster—enfolded in tentacles that did little to muffle his frantic screams.

Then the view had swung and tumbled nauseatingly, like the POV in a clumsy found-footage horror film. And just for a fraction of a second she’d glimpsed a broad expanse of water in that alien landscape, a shallow fen or pond. Reflected in those still waters she’d seen what had hold of Rooster, the true form of the thing that had been wearing the church:

The creature hung rooted in the sky above that lurid field, a silent dark blossoming sun of countless hunting tentacles arrayed around a dark central disk. The disk was dominated by numerous identical oblongs of terrible brightness. These were orifices, Allie saw—but orifices that had no animal analogue she could imagine. They were mouths that were eyes that were . . . passages. She saw a knobby limb lift something toward one such lighthole, like a jeweler inspecting a rare gem. The tentacle that held Rooster deposited him into another gaping light, like a gourmand forking up a delicate canapé. Still other arms rooted around in other lightholes, the beast reaching into itself to fetch out other tender morsels from the too-tight places where it hunted, worlds without end.

In one bright orifice Allie clearly saw herself—just a glimpse for just a split second, but without a doubt her fried-pink hair, her pale face, her staring eyes limned by dark kohl eyeliner, all against a backdrop of West Virginia mud and leaf litter.

It was undeniable, what all this implied: that her entire universe dwelt within the dark tentacle thing.

Her brain had tried to spring away from that notion—but could not, not for long. Allie’s mind was like a Pleistocene hare that’s stumbled into a tar pit: even if you manage to slip free of certain demise, you’ll never get all that tar off.

In the days and weeks and months that followed she smoked Rooster’s pills, drawing their plastic fumes deep into her lungs and holding them tight. The smoke was dark and forgiving. It masked these three fundamental facts:

First, that we all already dwell in the belly of the beast, and always have.

Second, that Allie had not survived because she was fleet of foot or quick of wit. She had not survived because she was special, one of the Chosen People of antiquity.

She was not a rabbit in the tall grass.

She wasn’t even a pig in the chute.

She was krill, already in the mouth of the whale, too insignificant to even grasp that she’d been eaten ages ago.

At best, she had survived because she’d lucked out, and there was nothing she could do to ensure further luck in the future.

And finally, that in all likelihood, she had not survived at all, not really. She just happened to still be alive.

Perhaps what hurt most was how obvious all this was, now that she had finally opened her goddamn eyes to it, all those warnings repeated for all those generations, mother to child: the recursive terror of the spider who seeks shelter in the water spout over and over again to no avail, the cloying pitcher-plant sweetness of the ring-o-round-o-rosie-o slowly rotating in the darkness atop the distant hills, the simple fact that when “this little piggy went to market” he certainly wasn’t going to be the one pushing the cart from aisle to aisle. The goddamn church. The steeple. The doors. The people.

She now knew that, all her life, had she looked she would have seen countless signs, crafted by cultures that all thought they were powerful, in order to preserve and transmit a single simple warning:

            What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us.

            The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

            The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

            The form of the danger is an emanation of dark energy.

            This place is best left shunned.

 

“This Place Is Best Shunned” copyright © 2022 by David Erik Nelson
Art copyright © 2022 Dave Palumbo

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