The Illusion and the Reality

church-window-shrine-st-anneA young woman who called herself Raven, and a young man who called himself Grinder, stood, motionless, at the entrance to the First Cross Church.  Its doorway was like a wide, screaming mouth, complete with a lolling tongue; a stained red carpet, which spewed out from the dark halls within, and poured out onto the curb, where it hung, tattered, just above the street gutter.  Having never been so close to its doors before, the two had never noticed how completely massive, and old, the building truly was.  Its dingy brick walls seemed to stretch on into the sky forever.  Too high, seemingly, even for the birds.  The church dwarfed its neighboring structures, a long-abandoned apartment complex and a highly frequented meats store, in which the well-liked butcher, Old Smokey Ling, stood, his face pressed up against the stores dirty window, peering out at the two kids by the church.

He had seen them before.  They had come into his shop the year before, asking him if he’d sell them any cleaned out animal skulls.  While this request was not entirely unreasonable, it was the kids themselves who had shocked him.  They wore nothing but black, and what wasn’t black, was dark in some other way; black nail polish, black shirts, black pants, and dusky gems on hoary silver jewelry.  Their faces were painted with white makeup, and they had smeared black around their eyes and mouths.  The girl, who’d introduced herself as Raven, had the bluest eyes Old Smokey Ling had ever seen.  She introduced her silent male companion as Grinder, who didn’t speak, and instead, looked up like a stiff corpse with lifeless eyes.  The butcher didn’t imagine he’d ever forget their faces, and sure enough, he hadn’t.  After all, they hadn’t changed a thing about themselves, except of course, their destination.  What did they want with the old church?  He shook his head, and not wanting any trouble, he went back to his work.

“Ain’t going in there.”  Raven said, twirling her dyed black hair around her pale, bejeweled finger.

Grinder blinked.  His stocky frame shifted to one side.  “Don’t have to.  I can go alone.”

“Remember, we need something that not only looks holy, but will be missed.  Find like, a Virgin Mary statue or a chalice or something.”  She giggled darkly, flinging her arms around Grinder’s neck.  “You can do it.”

“Yeah.”  He answered, without any kind of emotional reaction, and walked away, up the steps to the open doors.  He stopped for only a moment before continuing on into the dark.

The halls were dark, and smelled damp.  His boots treaded loudly upon the stone floor and echoed through the empty rooms.  His breath seemed far too warm to be found within those walls.

It was pretty impressive, he thought, with its large, colorful paintings, stained glass, and faded murals.  Nothing really seemed to catch his eye, and so he kept walking.

He noticed a patch of light, though, just a bit further across the aisles.  His skin crawled, but he didn’t show it.  He decided to directly approach the source of the light, and didn’t make any effort to conceal his loud footsteps.

There came a calm voice from out of the silence, lovely, like the obscure drone of a faraway song, just as Grinder approached what appeared to be a shrine, half hidden behind tall pews.

“Hello, you’re welcome to come join me.”  The voice called.

Grinder kept walking, until finally a young man of the same age came into view.  He was dressed casually, a black tank top and faded army green shorts, pair of boots.  Nothing particularly stunning stood out about him, though he was unusually lanky, or at least it seemed that way, him being so thin and also quite tall.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to pray.  Maybe you could teach me how.  I don’t know how to.”  Answered the young man.

Grinder laughed, and then his face went blank.  The two had still not made eye contact, as the stranger still hadn’t turned around, but Grinder still attempted to keep up his dreary act. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Donnelly.  What’s yours?”  He answered, and though unmoving, his silhouette and shadow danced amongst the candlelight.

“Grinder.”

The young man remained unshaken.  “So why are you here?  Service isn’t until next week.”

“Trying to find something cool to steal.”

Donnelly finally turned around.  His brow ridges were bent in sadness, and his eyes, though dry as stone, seemed to be howling in mournful tears.  His lips were thick but his mouth was as honest and as thin as a weeping willow branch.  Grinder was taken aback.

“What about that thing over there?”  Donnelly said, his deep voice so hushed it was nearly inaudible.  The sound mesmerized Grinder, who couldn’t turn away.

“Why are you praying?”  He said after a long and awkward pause.

“That’s none of your business.”  He said, turning back around.

“Okay.”

There was deafening silence.  Neither of them stirred.

“I lost somebody special to me.  It was a long time ago, but life hasn’t gotten better.  I want to die.  I want to just put an end it all.  I just feel like I can’t, because of my friends.  My family.  But it’s my choice, you know?  I just don’t know what to choose.”  Donnelly’s words were like musical lyrics, and were so real to Grinder that they became physical, and as such, they flew around his ears like angels, all flowing robes and gold-feathered wings, but as quickly as they had appeared they were gone, for Donnelly had stopped speaking.  The hallucination was over.  Why did the stranger’s voice give him such a peaceful feeling?

Grinder sat down across from the stranger, who was kneeling on the cold floor.  He wasn’t sure if he was just interested in what Donnelly was saying or if he was mortally unable to focus on anything else ever again.

Donnelly didn’t seem bothered at all by the intensity.  The two individuals were both equally talented at hiding their true feelings.  Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a necklace, and held it up by its pendant. “My dad gave me this crucifix before he died.  I never cared much for it.  I’m not religious.  But, I thought I’d reach out.  It was… good enough for my dad.  I don’t know.”

Grinder’s eyes didn’t move from the back of Donnelly’s head.  “Is it working?”

“No.  I still feel the same.”  One of the five candles that were lit around the shrine blew out.  A wisp of smoke meandered up towards the rafters.

“So it was your dad you lost, huh.  My parents divorced when I was a kid.”  Donnelly didn’t react, so Grinder continued.  “My mum was a crack-head and my dad was a deadbeat, so as soon as he left and left me with her, she tried to sell me.  My older sister got me back.  My older sister raised me.”

Donnelly pocketed his dad’s necklace, and turned around to give his full attention.

“We learned to embrace our tragic lives, because whether we would have liked to escape them or not, we never would have been able to completely rid ourselves of them.  ‘Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.’

Most people look at us like we’re garbage.  My sister has a degree in fine arts and works for an upscale museum.  I own a vintage book store that doubles as a café where local bands, usually made up of troubled kids, can play.  We look like bad people, but we’re not.  We just learned early on that there is more beauty in the reality of tragedy than in the illusion of happiness.”

Donnelly sat in thought for a while.  His meditative posture was broken by yet another candle burning out.  He then spoke.  “I hear you but, you’re stealing from a church?”

“I want to decorate my business.  Why would I go buy something when I can just take something that has a story of its own?  I’d like to think of what these walls have seen for all these hundreds of years.  What scandals, lies, and hypocrisies happened here, as they watched the generations of families come and go?  Baptisms of infants, weddings, and funerals, these all must have happened.  What about when the doors were closed?  What can I take that holds all these secrets, and will beg for itself to be returned; will be begged to be returned?”

“Oh.”

“If you really wanted to end your life, you would.”  Said Grinder suddenly.

Donnelly’s eyes widened.  He seemed offended by the sudden brazenness.  Another of the candles burned out.  The near darkness consumed half of Donnelly’s sullen face.

“My sister calls herself Raven.  Want to know why?  Because one day, I came upon my sister, just as she was climbing up and over the balcony that was outside her window.  ‘I want to die,’ she said. ‘I want to die.’  She was wearing a black coat, and I can still remember how it waved out, like a pair of wings, as she leapt backwards and quickly disappeared.

She survived.  She also saw what kind of impact her actions had on me.  I was more than devastated.  But she told me, that nevermore will she try to kill herself again.  Nevermore, you know, like in The Raven, by Poe.  Her black coat, like a black bird.  The name to remind her of her promise to me.  Yeah.

Anyways, she wanted to die, and she went for it.  You?  You may want to be dead, but you don’t really want to die, you just need to be reminded of why you’re here.  Sometimes near death or thinking of death can remind us.”

“Why are you called Grinder?”

“Really?  It isn’t obvious?  I run a coffee shop.  Coffee… coffee grinder.”

“Wow.”

“Look, I don’t know how you feel.  I didn’t lose my dad; he was just an asshole that was never around.  But I think I felt the exact same way you do when I thought I’d lost my sister.  So I can’t tell you anything that would make you feel better, because I know nothing would have made me feel better.”

“I don’t need your sympathy.”  Donnelly turned back around to face the shrine.  As he did so, the candle nearest him flickered out, and though one remained, he was shrouded from sight in the shadow.  Grinder’s eyes had to adjust to the sudden lack of light.  The two sat in the silence of the deep, dark, belly of the old church.

“But, I do appreciate it.”  Donnelly said as he stood and walked over to Grinder, who also got to his feet.  “I can tell you genuinely care.  You really are a good person. In this shady place, I am able to see the real you.”

In the light of the one candle, Grinder saw the edges of his Donnelly’s lips curve up, ever so slightly, into what looked like a smile.  He became, again, lost in his sad, lyrical voice.

“You’re more real than any of my so-called friends have been.  My mum, she cares, too, when she isn’t drunk, or in the arms of her new boyfriend.  They care, but more about themselves, how they feel.  My sadness makes them sad, so they try to make me happy.  My pain is beautiful to you.  I am beautiful to you.  In this moment, I am the happiest I have been in all these years since my father’s death.  If not happy, at least, I feel at peace.”

“Why?”

Donnelly placed his hand into his pocket.  “You said I needed to be reminded why I’m here.  That I don’t want to be dead, but I don’t really want to die.  It’s true, I want to be dead.  I want to be with my father again.  And you’re right; I don’t want to die, in the sense of “lights out forever”, because I want to be able to be with him again, as I said, after death.  In an afterlife.  That’s why am I here praying.  That is why I’m here.”

Grinder was entranced by his every word, but allowed himself to show emotion.  He reached out to hug Donnelly, and he actually hugged back before pulling away.

“Here, you said you came in for something that could tell a story.  Take this.”  He placed the necklace his father had given him into Grinder’s hand and then pushed it away.  He then walked back over to the shrine, where the one candle remained lit, and reached back into his pocket and pulled out a small handgun.

Grinder saw it immediately.  “My real name is Eric. Haven’t told that to anyone of my own will, like… ever.  I’ve always, you know, gone by one nickname or another.”

“Eric.  Thanks, Eric.”   Donnelly said, smiling.  “Just think about what I told you earlier, and what I am about to do will make perfect sense.”  As Donnelly spoke, the last candle blew out, and the two of them were both caste into an almost complete darkness, having a little light cast in on them from the few stained glass windows high on the church walls.  There was a stunning kind of silence that ensued.  Grinder took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.  It seemed as if an eternity had passed.  Then, there was a large flash, and an even larger bang.

~

“Where have you been?”  Raven called out cheerfully to her brother, who was now exiting the church.  “What did you find?  Show me! You must!”

Grinder held the necklace up to show his sister.  He was wearing it around his neck and had tucked it into his shirt.

“Huh?”

“You’re going to want to go into the butcher shop and call an ambulance.  I’ll explain later.”

He watched as his sister turned and ran to Old Smokey Ling’s, before he turned back towards the church.   He looked at it differently now.  To some, it was henceforth going to be an ugly church where an unspeakable tragedy had occurred, but not to Grinder.  He had been there, and he got to see that last smile; he knew of that last peace.  He was able to see the beauty in the tragedy, because in reality, though someone may have been lying inside, dead, that someone had not died.

“No wonder I was so drawn to you.  It does make sense.”  Eric whispered.

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