God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’
A loud thump came from the oaken doors.
‘The courage to change the things I can.’
The candle flickered and wax dripped down its shaft and pooled on the pine table, the golden light expanding like a bubble in the dark. A man was kneeling before an altar, while a crucified Christ looked down upon him.
The wooden door shook again and groaned as a result of the force that pushed against it. The man wiped his palms on his trousers. The cartilage in his jaw tightened as he swallowed. He closed his eyes and spoke the last line in a whisper:
‘And the wisdom to know the difference.’
Father Ronan rose to his feet and picked up the candle, its glow warping the walls with a ring of light. The doors wouldn’t hold forever. The priest clenched his crucifix necklace in his hand, his breath misting in the cold, the blood on his hands as dark as crude-oil. He looked across at his smock draped over a pew. He now wore a pair of jeans and a long-necked sweater. The heavy clattering of the rain pinged against church’s roof; thin tears of water slid down the stained-glass windows.
He hadn’t known much more than what the radio told him. Like most people, he didn’t believe it until he saw it. The undead. Zombies. Minions of Hell. He thought his church could give him sanctum, but now he wondered whether there was any place left on Earth that could.
He went calmly to the office through an oak door, the moonlight falling through the window highlighting the matted blood in his hair. But the blood was not his own, nor the blood-whips upon his face, nor the spatter upon his hands. He pulled out a pistol from his waistband. The clatter on the roof grew louder, and the main doors bulged and curved from the pressure of the army that came to war against God and his servants. Father Ronan’s calmness was a shroud for the trembling he tried so very hard to banish.
The darkness in the office was like that of an underwater cavern. The room had been furnished with wood furniture: a bookcase, a desk, an office chair with black padding. Hills upon the skyline were seen through the rain-stained window. A transformer box was sparking.
He ignored all that and instead glanced at the body on the floor: eyes winking in the candle-light. Kneeling before it, Ronan ran his hands through his hair and his face and then touched his fingers to his lips and tasted the blood on his skin. His mind projected images of the young girl who had been killed, and he swore he saw her alive again, dancing in the rain, showered by sparks of the transformer box, a show just for him and her.
Oh God, why is this happening? I’m not strong enough for this.
He clicked the button on the pistol and dropped the clip into his other hand and checked the rounds. He heard the stiff fingernails and hands of the undead biting into the oaken door, splintering the wood and tearing it off from its iron hinges. It crumbled to the floor like a medieval draw-bridge.
She was bitten. I had no choice. She told me not to, but I did it anyway. What do you make of that?
He reinserted the clip into the pistol and pulled back the receiver and chambered a round. He rolled the girl’s head and gazed into the eyes that looked like glass. He looked away.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
He could smell the cordite and blood on his hands. A smell he knew he would never forget.
The courage to change the things I can.
A tree of lightning bloomed through the window, no thunder. Leaves battered against the glass.
‘Rest in peace now, girl. May the world remember you for your best.’
The girl had come for protection. She had claimed the marks on her arm had been caused by a dog. Could have been the truth. He’d asked her to close her eyes and pray, and while she knelt on the cold floor he unlocked the safe under the desk and took out the pistol from the oiled cloth in which it had been wrapped. His eyes rolled back in his head and sweat ran down his palms. It started to rain at that moment. Maybe it was symbolic. They say the dead can speak to us through the water. The pistol felt heavy in his hands. The recoil of the first shot took him off-guard and the bullet missed. The girl screamed. She scrambled across the ground, her palms leaving foggy marks on the polished stone, and then Father Ronan panicked and started firing blindly. The bullets took out chunks from the stone floor, chopped up the wooden furniture, cracked the walls, the muzzle of the pistol sparking, smoke clouding the office, the deafening shots pounding the priest’s ears. He fired almost a quarter of the clip before stopping.
He blinked rapidly, his vision clipping the images of the young girl on the floor; a chunk of flesh had been cut out of her neck, blood escaping like a broken faucet, and she was gasping for breath as if she were a fish whose gills were struggling for water.
Father Ronan stared blankly at the memory, and then he heard the dragging of legs that sounded like bones scratching against old tombs. He pressed the muzzle of the pistol against the side of his head and squeezed shut his eyes. His eyelids flurried as beads of sweat dripped down his forehead. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. He held his breath. A charge of electricity twisted through the clouds. The gun trembled in his hand.
You make me take two lives tonight? I can’t do it. I can’t fucking doing it.
He let the gun fall from his hand and he heard it clatter against the floor. He picked up a paper-weight from the desk and ran for the window. He threw the paper-weight as hard as he could and shattered the glass. Wind and rain and leaves blew in through the space. He tried to reach the window, but it was too high for him. They moved faster than he thought. The hands took him, so many hands. Teeth. The teeth bit him, so much pain. The eyes of the dead girl watched as the undead took away his skin, and he thought he saw her smile at him. When he searched the faded eyes of the undead tearing his body apart, in hopes of finding an answer to the cruelty he was experiencing, he found no such answer nor reason for his demise. But then maybe the search for answers amongst the products of evil is facile, and that the real answers are found amongst ourselves. Although on the other hand, sometimes there are no answers.
The ambivalence he felt when his legs were removed from their sockets made him wonder whether he was cursed from the beginning.
And the wisdom to know the difference.