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Part 5: The Illusion of Serenity
After Davey had ran from the room in which he had been supposed to spend his Lent, Deborah had heard the commotion from the far end of the tunnels.
The smoke flooding in through the open door terrified her as she struggled to find her way around the church’s subterranean tunnels at the best of times.
She was still dazed from the struggle with Davey, even more so from the beating Wayne had given her for allowing the boy to escape his cage.
Her legs wobbled like those of a first-time seafarer.
She couldn’t see very well, due to the swelling around her eyes.
Her pulse pounded in the raised bumps surrounding them.
The smoke that seemed to evaporate all the moisture in her eyes didn’t help either.
Her chances of getting out alive seemed slim.
She realised her best bet was to feel her way along the walls and pray she found the exit before the creaking floorboards above her head gave way.
‘If it’s my time then it’s my time,’ she said solemnly, hands clasped in a praying grip. ‘If it’s what you want, Lord, then I am ready to be by your side. But please, give me the strength to get out of this.’
She blundered along in the darkness, hoping that she was headed in the right direction.
Muffled voices came from ahead and to her right.
She ducked into the room she thought they were coming from.
She dimly saw Davey on the floor, Cross straddling his chest, raining punches down on the helpless boy.
She was torn for a split second.
Did she save her own skin and continue her search for the stairs?
Did she help her husband to subdue the heathen?
Neither of these options seemed right.
A memory of a fantasy from the early days of her pregnancy flashed into her head.
Holding a pink-clad baby girl, who smiled and cooed at her every move.
Big blue-grey eyes that sparkled with her gap-toothed grin.
Chubby red cheeks.
A cute fold in the flab halfway down her little forearms.
She’d known deep down that it would have been a girl.
If not for—
Despair racked her whole frame as she thought of the life she could have led, were it not for Reverend Cross and his insane religious beliefs.
And she knew exactly what she needed to do.
After it was done, she felt much better about everything, as though a pressure cooker that had needed venting for a decade had suddenly sprung a leak and relieved itself.
She knew she had done the right thing.
The warm blood on her hands felt life-affirming when she thought of who it belonged to and what he had done to her.
What he had taken from her.
Still, to stand and stare, giggling, at his corpse was to invite death by inferno.
So she continued her path towards the stairs.
As she entered the church’s nave, the swirling smoke finally overwhelmed her senses.
Ten feet from the safety of the door that led outside, she succumbed to the poison in the air.
She retched as the smoke flooded into her lungs.
It felt like the time she’d tried to hang herself in the cage.
Her lungs ached.
Her head simultaneously spun and pounded, like her brain was trying to smash its way out through the walls of her skull.
Her view of the world pulsated in time with her plummeting heartrate.
She found it fitting that she was about to die in the same building where she had found God.
It was as though this was her gateway to Heaven.
Too weak to move, she closed her eyes and waited for God to pull her up to his side.
Deborah was roused from her sleep by the feeling of someone dragging her to her feet.
Between coughs, she protested weakly; she’d been quite enjoying the dream she’d been having.
‘Thank God you’re here,’ the person carrying her said. ‘He’s in a bad way.’
Then they thrust her across to someone else.
She looked for her saviour, wanting to utter a blessing or at least thank them, but they had disappeared into the billowing smoke clouds.
The man holding her had her hugged tight into his left shoulder.
His right hand was waving vast clouds of smoke away from their faces.
Deborah was unable to speak but she did manage to grunt.
‘Who’s that?’ the man holding her said.
She recognised the voice as Preacher Kelly’s.
He was one of Wayne’s most loyal subjects.
‘Holy smoke, Deborah. What are you doing in here?’
Deborah grunted in reply.
‘What’s all this blood off?’ he said, staring, bemused, at her bloody hands and clothes for a second.
Then he saw the state of her face and mistakenly assumed that this was the cause.
He wasted no time in getting her out of the burning church.
As they reached the outside, the cold air caressed them like a gentle lover.
They coughed and spluttered in relief.
Preacher Kelly pulled her hard to the side as a blazing piece of timber slammed into the grass next to them.
Deborah’s eyes grew wide as they took in the inferno that her once-proud home had become.
‘Don’t worry, ma’am, we’ll get the fires out and when the dust has settled we’ll have the place looking better than it ever did.’
‘God smiled upon you today, Mrs Cross,’ Preacher Kelly whispered to her when they were a safe distance from the blaze. ‘You were spared.’
‘Where’s Wayne?’ she asked, keen to be showing concern for her missing husband.
‘I’m afraid to say that I don’t think Reverend Cross made it, ma’am. He hasn’t come out of there yet.’
Deborah’s eyes filled with tears, the smoke helping her to feign sorrow.
‘If anyone can get outta there, it’s him,’ Preacher Kelly said. ‘But I gotta say, I can’t see anyone making it outta that basement alive.’
One of the young converts wanted to go inside and look for Cross.
‘Son, as much as I’d love to go in and get him, I think it’s too late,’ Preacher Kelly said.
The boy disappeared in anyway.
‘God bless him,’ Deborah said.
Fucking idiot, let him burn, she thought, trying to hide her smile.
They waited outside the church until Serenity’s fire crews got the blaze under control.
Cross didn’t come out and neither did the boy who went in after him.
The relief she felt was immeasurable.
Preacher Kelly hugged her hard. ‘He was the best man to have ever walked the earth,’ he sobbed. ‘He introduced me to God and I will never forget that. He touched the hearts of everyone in this community. And he will be sorely missed.’
The villagers all offered Deborah a place to stay but Preacher Kelly insisted that she stayed at their house until the church was repaired.
Deborah awoke in a strange bed, in the dreamy fugue between sleep and waking.
She was facing the wall but she felt the unmistakable feeling of someone watching her.
She looked round and felt certain that she’d seen her husband standing in the corner of the room.
But he wasn’t there now.
‘Shit, that was creepy,’ she muttered to herself after ensuring the room was empty.
Sleep was a while in returning, as her nerves were still in tatters.
Seeing what she took to be her husband’s ghost had scared the crap out of her.
When she awoke again, she had that same skin-crawling feeling, but there was no one there this time.
She shuddered at the recollection of it and sat up.
‘What was that all about?’ she asked herself aloud.
The bed creaked a little as she leant against the headboard.
A few minutes later, Preacher Kelly came in, holding a gleaming silver tray laden with a sweet-smelling breakfast and a steaming pot of coffee, which was polished enough to display her dishevelled reflection.
She winced as she saw the state of herself.
A night of fitful crying had done little for her looks.
‘I look an absolute fright,’ she said, trying a smile for the first time since escaping the fire.
‘Not at all,’ Preacher Kelly said. ‘If I were you, I’d eat up, cos you’re going to need your strength now that you’ve taken over the running of Serenity.’
She frowned at the thought.
She was nowhere near as strong and ruthless as her husband had been, in spite of her powerful faith.
‘I’m not sure it should be me who does it.’
‘Wayne made provisions and he insisted it must be you who runs the town in the event of his death. You wouldn’t want to go against his wishes, would you?’
She shook her head. ‘No, not at all. I’m sure it’s not that hard once you’ve gotten used to it. I mean I used to help him make some of the decisions anyway.’
‘Well there you go. You eat up, then I took the liberty of organising a meeting for noon.’
‘That is fine, it’ll give me time to get a shower and pull myself round.’
‘My thoughts exactly.’
Deborah winced as the smell of smoke from her clothes hit her nostrils, pungent enough to make her think she was still breathing in the noxious fumes.
She coughed hard, as her lungs fought to rid themselves of the poison she’d inhaled.
‘I’ll see you at noon then, Mrs Cross. You take some time to process what’s happened.’
‘Thank you, Preacher Kelly. God is pleased with your work here.’
Preacher Kelly nodded and closed the door behind him.
Deborah had a little cry, but didn’t feel too distraught.
You’re still in denial, she thought with a frown. The full aftermath of this will hit you later.
She picked at the breakfast, not feeling hungry, but feeling obliged to eat at least half of it.
It was delicious, but she just wasn’t in the mood.
Her stomach churned a little, but she managed to keep the meal down as she showered.
She took her time under the hot spray, feeling the smoke, ash and blood slowly trickle from her skin.
Her peripheral vision picked up a flash of movement through the frosted shower glass.
It looked as though someone had stepped back out of view behind the door.
‘Hello?’ she shouted, knocking the water off for a second.
She took a closer look but could see no one there.
She finished washing quickly, feeling distinctly creeped out.
The person who had been watching her had looked very much like her husband.
‘I’m losing the fucking plot,’ she muttered to herself, shivering despite the heat from the shower.
She rarely swore since Wayne had led her down the path to God’s door, but felt this one was deserved.
Whether it was a ghost or a hallucination it was easily grounds for a stray curse.
She washed fast, no longer wanting to be on her own.
She craved company, at least then she could check if anyone else saw the apparition and satisfy herself that there was a more rational explanation.
‘Keep this shit to yourself,’ she muttered. ‘Or you’ll be getting a one-way ticket to the nuthouse.’
She dressed quickly in some clothes that Preacher Kelly’s wife had leant her.
She felt she looked the part; a perfectly-pressed white blouse which concealed rather than amplified her assets, a black pencil skirt that seemed to have been made for her legs and red high heels that gave her enough height to feel authoritative.
The over-sized ruby red rosary necklace was the icing on the cake as far as she was concerned.
She looked herself in the eye, took a deep breath, said, ‘You’ve got this. You’ve fucking got this,’ and set off out to the meeting.
One glance at the blackened husk of her formerly pristine church home made her eyes fill with tears.
The crowd of people around the fences of the church smiled at her kindly, but she could see they pitied her and doubted her ability to control the village in her husband’s absence.
She was ready to prove them wrong.