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The Haunting at St. James
A few miles outside of the growing city of Chicago, St. James Church is erected and holds its first Mass. The rather small church sits atop a lush hill. The rich green grass and pastel wildflowers dance with the warm spring wind, and mingle with the setting sun. A few acres surrounding it are planned to be cemetery land. Inside, the Crucifix is mounted over the altar. Statues of angels painted in faux gold line the walls.
Nine-year-old Annie Grasser walks in to church next to her mother. Her father leads them to a pew. She sits quietly as others enter the church and take their seats. After a few minutes, the priest takes his place at the altar. He opens his mouth to begin his sermon. Suddenly, the blood-chilling scream of a man in agonizing pain slashes through the air from the bottom of the hill.
The only one in the church unruffled by the screams of anguish is Annie.
It was a tradition in thirteen-year-old Minnie’s family to visit seven churches after Mass on Holy Thursday night. It usually took all night, but Minnie was used to it. This year, Minnie’s dad, Carl, wanted to go all the way to Willow Springs to visit St. James Church.
Minnie leaned her head against the glass of the car window in the front seat as she stared at the arch above the road. The arch proudly proclaimed the number 1833.
“That’s the year the church was built,” Carl informed Minnie.
She nodded disinterestedly. All she wanted was for the next three days to be over so she could drink pop and eat pizza again. Many of her friends had birthdays in March, along with birthday parties, so it had been a long Lent.
The car descended the hill to the church parking lot. Carl parked the car and a golf cart drove up to them.
“Want a ride?” the old man who drove asked.
“Sure,” Carl said. “Come on Minnie. Let’s find first tee.”
Minnie rolled her eyes. The two of them climbed into the back seat of the cart and the driver took them up the remainder of the hill to the church.
Minnie looked up at the small church. It was made of gray brick, with stained glass windows in the sides. The grass surrounding the church on the left side was crowded with gravestones. On the right, the hill sloped sharply down. Lights hanging in the trees made the stark branches look like demonic, gnarled fingers trying to grab at something just out of reach.
Minnie shivered. Weird for a church, she thought. Even for an old one.
Carl led the way into the church. The carpet was a deep wine-purple. The pews were dark brown wood. More stained glass windows evinced different saints that Minnie did not recognize. The golden monstrance on the left side was held on a table draped in red and white cloth. The altar had a wooden top, with glass legs and gold angels on the sides. More gold angels rested behind six chairs at the back. To the right, three crosses stood on a platform. A crown of thorns hung on one. Woman, behold your son, was written on the bottom of the display. Minnie looked for a Crucifix, and found it affixed above the altar.
They genuflected reverently before entering a pew. Minnie and Carl knelt down to pray. As Minnie folded her hands, she heard someone whisper her name. She looked behind her, but the few people in the church had their eyes focused on the Crucifix. She heard it again, but no one’s lips moved.
“What’s wrong?” Carl asked his daughter.
“Nothing,” Minnie lied, turning back to the altar.
She folded her hands once again and bowed her head in prayer. The voice did not call her again while she was praying. After she crossed herself and sat patiently in the pew, she heard it again.
She could tell it was not just one person who spoke, but two. A man and a little girl.
“Are you ready?” Carl asked quietly, hoisting himself from the kneeler to the pew seat.
Minnie nodded. This was the last church, and she wanted to get home. Not just because she was tired, the voice was starting to freak her out.
They walked out of the church. Outside, the priest stood talking to an elderly couple. The couple left and the priest turned to Minnie and Carl.
“Good evening,” he said. “Visiting?”
Carl nodded. “It’s a beautiful church.”
“Thanks,” the priest said. “What parish are you from?”
“St. Rene Goupil,” Carl responded.
“Southwest side,” the priest mused. “You guys drove a long way.”
“Hey!” a boy said, tapping Minnie on the shoulder.
Minnie turned to face a teenage boy a little older than her. He had tousled bronze hair, tan skin, and hazel eyes. Minnie thought he was kind of cute.
“Oh, sorry,” the boy said, blushing and stepping back. “I thought you were someone I know.”
“It’s okay,” Minnie said, feeling awkward tension fill the air.
“I’ve never seen you around here before,” the boy said, studying her features.
“I’m from the south side of Chicago,” Minnie responded. “My dad and I visit seven churches on Holy Thursday every year.”
“My mom and I do that too,” the boy said with a smile. “We come to Mass here, and then come back here after the other six. I’m Evan.”
“Minnie,” she responded, smiling with Evan.
Evan looked at the church. “St. James is supposed to be haunted, you know.”
“What?” Minnie asked. How could a holy structure be haunted?
“Want to take a walk, Minnie?” Evan offered. “I could tell you about the legend.”
“Sure,” Minnie said. “Hey, Dad, I’m going to take a quick walk, okay?”
“Meet me by the car,” Carl said.
Evan led Minnie around the right side of the church. They walked along the top of the drop-off. Minnie could see more eerily illuminated trees reaching their branches up to her. A few mausoleums and tombstones dotted the ground.
“St. James first Mass was held on Holy Thursday, 1833,” Evan began. “The priest was about to begin Mass, when someone screamed. Everyone was freaking out, except for little Annie Grasser. Some people went to look for the man who screamed, but they couldn’t find him. No footprints, no scraps of clothing--nothing. Annie had disappeared when they got back. Her parents were accused of kidnapping their own daughter. Then Annie showed up during the Pentecost Mass a few weeks later. After that, a few children were found killed at the bottom of the hill and Annie disappeared again. No one ever saw her.”
Minnie stared at Evan incredulously. She could feel her arms get cold and her knees become weak. A little girl killing and disappearing? It was scary.
Get real! she thought. Evan’s just trying to scare you. He’s probably told the same story to God-knows-how-many people before.
“God,” Minnie muttered. “That’s…freaky. Really scary. Kind of sounds like Orphan.”
“You’ve seen that movie?” Evan asked.
Minnie shook her head. “My parents won’t let me. But that legend sounds like what I’ve heard about it, kind of.”
Evan laughed a laugh that released the iciness in Minnie’s arms and spine and set it free to shiver.
“No,” he laughed. “It’s noting like Orphan. There was probably a happy ending in Orphan. The girl probably died and the family got on normally again. I don’t know--I’ve never seen it either. But I have lived the legend.”
“F this,” Minnie said. “I’m not an idiot, Evan. I know you’re lying to me. Cut it out.”
“Would you really not help me?” Evan said darkly. Black spilled out from his pupil like an oil spill, covering the brown-gold color. His voice rose with every sentence. “I’ve been waiting since 1833 to get to Heaven, Minnie. I was the man screaming at the bottom of the hill during the Holy Thursday Mass. I was being dragged to Hell that night. You have no idea how much it hurt. Hurt is an understatement. It was excruciating. More than that Annie was possessed.” By now, he was shouting. “She was dragging me. The demon still lives on. It’s trying to get back into the church, to get what we need.”
Minnie was shaking all over now. She couldn’t move. She knew she should be running, but her legs felt like Jell-O.
“Evan,” she whispered. Her voice felt like it was stuck in her vocal cords, and wondered if he even heard her. “Stop. Please. Evan you’re scaring me!” Her voice cracked, and she felt like she was going to cry from the terror.
He grabbed her arms and pulled her close to him.
“You’re a good girl, Minnie,” he whispered soothingly, almost seductively. “Help me get out of Hell.”
“No.” Minnie squirmed in Evan’s grip. “Let me go, please. I didn’t do anything. Let me go.”
“I can’t do that,” Evan said. “There’s too much at stake for me. See, Minnie, I can’t go into the church. I have too much on my soul for God to let me in there. I was surprised Annie slipped past Him--which just goes to show you how much He pays attention. But you, Minnie, you can go in. Get me the crown of thorns from the display. You know the one I’m talking about. Meet us at the bottom of the hill.”
He released Minnie. She staggered back, trying to keep from collapsing.
“Why me?” she asked, tears gently flowing from her eyes.
“Because, you are the one Annie told me to use,” he said bluntly. “Go fetch, and you’ll get a treat: your life. Oh, and by the way, don’t try to run back to daddy. Unless, of course, you want him to die.”
Minnie tried to compose her face as she walked back to the front of the church. She knew that she had to do what Evan asked. She did not want to die, and she did not want her father to die because of her.
She walked into the church. Keeping to the sides, she walked up to the display of the three crosses. There were too many people for her to just reach up and take the crown of thorns right there. She knelt in a pew and decided to pretend to pray until she was the only one left.
She crossed herself and folded her hands. Then she looked up at the altar respectfully. That was when she noticed the circular stained glass window at the top of the wall behind the altar. In the middle, an eye kept watch over the church. Minnie felt like it was the eye of God. It was the eye of God that would be watching her as she stole the sacred crown His Son wore as he died for a sin she would commit.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, staring at the eye.
She buried her face in her hands as she cried from fear and guilt. It was mostly fear, but guilt came from knowing that she was a weak human who could not even say a two-letter word that meant rejection. She knew that rejecting this assignment would mean death, and that is exactly why she could not reject it.
Even though it was only about ten o’clock, there was only one old woman left in the church. Minnie looked back and saw that she covered her face with her hands. She decided that she would not have another time to act. Silently, she walked with quivering legs to the crosses. She reached up and grabbed the crown of thorns. The fake wood felt heavy in her hands. The blunt thorns pressed into her palm. It took all she could muster merely to walk out of the church.
Once she was outside, she ran down the path on the side of the hill. Evan was waiting, leaning against the side of one of the mausoleums. How could he act so casual?
“Hey,” he said nonchalantly, as if she had not just taken a hallowed object. “You did it.”
“Here,” Minnie said, forcing the crown into his hands. “Let me go now.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that, Minnie.”
It was not Evan who spoke. The voice of a young girl came from behind Minnie. The voice sounded innocent enough, but that was why it made Minnie so afraid.
She turned around to see a girl a little younger than ten wearing an old-fashioned dress, like one Laura Ingals would wear. Minnie knew this was Annie.
“Why do you want me?” Minnie screamed.
Annie walked forward, her face growing darker with each step.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, her voice changing from the sweet nine-year old to an older, more sinister tone. “We just need you to pay our debt.”
Evan grabbed Minnie from behind. She screamed and thrashed, trying to throw him off.
“Let me go!” she screamed in fear.
“Shh,” Evan whispered. “Shh. Don’t struggle, Minnie. It will only make the pain harder to bear. Trust me. I have felt it.”
Suddenly, Minnie felt a tug on her chest. She fell to the ground as Evan released her. A tormenting pain flared through her like a million Independence Day fireworks shows going off inside of her. An invisible rope pulled her through the grass and through the trees.
“She was right about one thing,” Annie said.
“About what?” Evan asked.
“She compared the trees’ branches to demon’s fingers.”
Annie and Evan watched in silence as they paid their ever-extending debt to the Devil yet again, with yet another human woman.