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Children are insane.
This is an unspoken truth, a silent agreement among the older and wiser. Children see things that adults can't or won't, and we laugh it off and tell them everything's all right, there's nothing there, it's not real. And when they get a little older, they'll agree with us. Ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night exist no longer in the adult world.
Children are insane, but they grow out of it.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I still haven't grown out of one of my ridiculous childhood fears, perhaps because I feel that it's still justified all these years later. I haven't outgrown it, merely pushed it to the back of my mind, where it still manifests in a dream now and then.
You see, my parents died in a car accident when I was three years old. My only memories of them are static. Mom and Dad, reduced to the black and white photographs on my grandparent's hearth. It doesn't bother me to talk about it because I was far too young to mourn their passing, but I've always been curious to know what they were like, what kind of people they were. For reasons that I didn't understand at the time, my grandparents refused to talk about them except at length. It was painful for them in a way I'll never know. So after my parents died, my grandparents were not the natural choice but the only one. My grandma didn't have Mom until she was forty-seven years old, and this was after suffering through three failed pregnancies. So they only had one child, my mother, and by the time of the accident Grandma was 76 and Granddad, 78. I had one uncle on my dad's side, but he was an alcoholic and wouldn't be able to take care of a three-year-old kid. So off I went to my grandparents' house, despite the fact that both of them were way too old to be watching after a toddler.
The older I got, the more I realized that Sunday mornings were my own personal Hell.
Grandad was religious and insisted that Grandma and I go to church with him every week, even though Grandma was about the least religious person I've ever known. She couldn't care less about God and Heaven and Satan and Hell and influenced me in more ways than Grandad did, even though he tried his damnedest to get me to pay attention to him. Each morning at breakfast he'd assault me with Bible verses and each evening was dedicated to lecturing me on the possibility of eternal punishment in the lake of fire. It's also worth mentioning that he wasn't exactly a saint himself. He was a lawyer in his younger years and had helped plenty of terrible people escape jail time in state prison. Maybe he was trying to make up for it in his own way, but me and Grandma both suffered for it.
The church that I saw each Sunday for the first few years of my life was a rickety old thing smack in the middle of nowhere. It was back on a hill, surrounded by a field of sunflowers during the summer and a barren stretch of land during the other three seasons of the year. I'm sure it probably sounds charming to you, but the floor creaked like holy hell and the walls would groan and shudder like the whole place was about to go up in a tornado. This would occur on a perfectly normal, breeze-less day, and had all the children of the congregation convinced that the building was haunted.
I think the worst part was the window.
Yes, there was only one window in the entire building, and it was a crooked, amateurish, stained glass rendition of Jesus Christ on the cross. The scene was bizarrely graphic, with the gaunt face of Christ turned to Heaven, eyes rolled skyward, and the Roman soldiers' hammers poised mid-strike to drive nails into his hands. Bright red blood was shown squirting from the wounds. For the most part no worse than anything you might see in any Christian church anywhere in the world, but the crude depiction and the cherry-coloured blood made the window look exceptionally eerie. Especially to a vulnerable, scrawny kid of ten with an overactive imagination.
When sun caught the window on any summer morning, Jesus and his bloody hands seemed to glow and pulse with unholy light. That pale face lurked in my mind when I closed my eyes and those rivulets of blood gleamed in my nightmares.
I never wanted to be alone in that church, not under the eyes of Stained Glass Jesus. Unfortunately for me, my fears were soon to be realized. One Sunday afternoon, after me and my grandparents had returned home from service, I realized that I'd left my dad's lucky rabbit's foot on the pew back at church. The rabbit's foot was just a silly thing that my father had carried with him on his keychain back when he was alive. It was one of the few things recovered from the crash that was still intact, and when I was six years old Grandma gave it to me. I saw the rabbit's foot as a way to connect with Dad even though I'd never known him.
So, naturally, I panicked. I wanted Grandma to go with me to get it, but she was worn out from the walk to church and back and told me I was old enough to go on my own. It wasn't much of a walk for a young boy like me, she said. But I kept seeing Stained Glass Jesus and his bright red blood, and that cold fear crept up in my mind as if I were really there, standing before him. I didn't want Grandad to go, so I finally relented. I took a long time walking alongside the road, hands jammed in my pockets, wanting to prolong my inevitable meeting with Stained Glass Jesus Christ as much as possible. Tall sunflowers swayed in the warm breeze like rippling ocean waves, and when I walked past them they seemed to bend their heads and bow at my feet. "Good luck," they seemed to say. "Good luck and good-bye."
As eerie as the church was on any normal day, when it was empty it was the stuff of nightmares. I opened the front door without stepping inside and stared into darkness. The entrance was a great yawning mouth, ragged velvet rug its tongue and jagged wooden steps its teeth. I repressed my fear as best I could and took the stairs up into the church, careful to leave the front door open in case I needed to make a hasty exit.
The sanctuary seemed to swallow all light, and to my ten-year-old self the room was too large and simultaneously claustrophobic. I approached the pew where me and my grandparents had been sitting, the floorboards groaning with each step. And there was the rabbit's foot, just out of reach. I leaned in to grab it when I felt a presence in the room with me. You know the feeling when somebody is watching you, even if you're alone? It was like that, except I wasn't alone and I knew I wasn't alone. Stained Glass Jesus would be watching me if I turned around.
I didn't want to turn around, but the pews were pushed up next to the wall, and the only way to get out was to go back the way I'd came. So I turned back around and saw Stained Glass Jesus looking at me even though I tried my hardest not to look at him. Here he was, all pale skin and white eyes and bloody hands, and we were completely alone. Both of my hands were gripped around the rabbit's foot like it was a life preserver in the middle of a raging storm. I wanted to move. I couldn't.
And then Jesus moaned. Light pulsed beyond the window, making him glow bright and unholy, and with each flicker the scene shifted. The Roman soldiers' hammers swung back and forth, back and forth, driving the nails deeper into his hands, blood spraying on impact. He moaned and moaned and his eyes rolled in their sockets before focusing on me. That crude gaunt face turned to me in the confines of colourful glass and he opened his mouth and said, "Your parents burn in Hell."
Suddenly I could move again. I was running out of the sanctuary and out of the church and into the blinding light of a summer afternoon before I was fully able to comprehend what had happened. As soon as my feet hit the dirt path outside of church, the doors slammed shut and it was over.
I ran home without stopping. That evening, Grandma asked me if something was wrong. I never told her what I saw.
As fate would have it, I never had to go back to the church with the Stained Glass Jesus. That night, my granddad died in his sleep. Nobody was exactly surprised: he was an old man. After the funeral, me and Grandma packed up and moved closer to town. The rest of my childhood was relatively normal, and I'm grateful for it.
My grandma died. Time passed. I grew up. I've tried to rationalize the Stained Glass Jesus many times over the years: perhaps it was a combination of a child's imagination coupled with both curiosity and fear over my parents. I've tried to tell myself that, but to this day I can't really accept it. I don't think I'll ever know.
On summer evenings, when the sunlight catches just right between the trees, I'll think of that old church so many years ago. And when I think of the church, I know for a fact that when I close my eyes that night, I'll see Stained Glass Jesus and his gaunt face and skyward eyes and bloody hands, and I'll hear his voice just like I'm ten years old again.
"Your parents burn in Hell."