Bryan Beal

Slow Death

Graham Hadrian looked into the mirror early on Sunday morning, grimacing at the haggard, drawn face that peered back at him. Sickly, dysentery green stains blotched his skin and eyes like a leprous growth seeping its diseased tentacles through his body. Another Sunday and another service that he would have to push himself through. He wondered at the hypocrisy that used to weigh heavily on his heart. It no longer caused him a loss of sleep or pricks of the conscience. If the suckers wanted to believe this crap, then that was on them. He was merely pushing the lies that had long since ceased plaguing him with their malicious guilt and fear.

Hadrian took one last deep breath, more like a sigh of resignation, before leaving the vestry with a last adjustment of his “dog collar”. How fitting was that label. He walked into the church to stand by the altar. It had once been a place of refuge and sanctity for him. The parishioners still had that sense of peace when they walked through the doors at the front. They still felt a soothing vibration of the divine in this place. Hadrian looked about and saw only cancerous corruption. Whether that was something in the reality of the church itself, or a reflection of the corruption of his own soul, he had no idea. He had been beyond caring for years, so why all this should bother him now was a mystery to him. He started the service with a prayer to a God that he no longer felt was there.

The service dragged Hadrian's soul further into the abyss of its own despair. The church was a dank crypt, not even the white-washed tombs that Jesus has accused the Pharisees of being. As the hymns progressed into a vapid sermon about something or other in the Gospel of John, Hadrian felt her eyes on him. They were not the stare of interest or engagement, but a scowl of hostility mixed with prayer. Hadrian, for months, had preached that Jesus was all about love. He had studiously avoided anything more jarring to his changing self-image like Jesus' coming judgement or the utter righteousness of God. Yet, one person, one old lady with the freakish scowl, reminded him on a weekly basis of that very avoidance. Emma Wrost was like an echo of the conscience that had long fallen silent in the ghost town of his mind.

He knew what she was thinking. He knew what Emma would say to him at service's end. Her voice, like prophets of old, would more annoy him than anything. Sometimes, he even fell into the trap of asking God to make her go away. Every week proved his prayers useless when Emma returned to the same spot. Aisle end of pew three. Her piercing blue eyes set him on edge. He almost dropped the wafers under the old crone's intense scrutiny. Emma's eyes accused him of being where he should not be. Hadrian, in his more honest moments, had to give her that point.

At the end of the service, the congregation gathered in the kitchen and hall for a cup of tea and cakes. Hadrian, of course, attended and smiled at everyone he talked to. He dreaded the moment when Emma Wrost would accost him. It was liked being assaulted. When he thought about, he was not sure why he feared her so or why he felt such aversion to the woman. Every other parishioner lauded her praises.

“Be careful what spirits you listen to, Minister Graham. The spirit of this world has a loud voice.”, Wrost said from behind the minister.

Hadrian involuntarily shuddered, sure that Wrost had seen the response. Her eyes bored into him knowingly as he turned to her.

“Thanks for the warning, Mrs Wrost.”, he replied, trying to keep the rising bile of anger from his voice.

“Don't thank me, Graham. You know who to thank.”, she bruskly replied and walked away.

After everyone had left, Hadrian closed the old church and wandered into the cemetery. What he was looking for, he had no idea. Yet, there was something changing inside him. Wrost was right in one thing. There was another voice in his mind, as crazy as that might seem. It was insistent and loud. As he stood there before a moss-covered grave of a long buried saint of old, Hadrian felt a break in his soul. It was like a final beam had snapped.

He dared not look at himself for fear of what he had become. In this place, in this dark, damp residence of the dead, Hadrian had found his people, his congregation and home. And yet, not one of them was present. Even the dead had abandoned him to his fate.

He reached over, stretching his hand out, to wipe the moss away. The plant had protected the carved letters underneath. The old minister gasped. The shock was ethereal, like cigarette smoke in the wind. He read his own name on the stone, dated today.