The Shrine by Robert Pettus
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Percy’s 1990 Volvo shook and sputtered laboriously as it made its way up one of the many winding hills of Bloomfield road. It wasn’t late, but it was dark. The overhanging trees blackened the road to the point that only the yellow lines were visible through the wobbling headlights. Two tall, cylindrical speakers sat duct-taped to the dash – bulky, white Hewlett-Packards we had secretively stolen from the high-school computer lab. They weren’t great, but they were far better than the Volvo’s stock speakers. Plus, they had an auxiliary chord that could connect to the Zune – our prized music-playing device.
Percy scrolled through his collection of music – one hand on the wheel, the other on the Zune – as the car swerved across the middle lane and back to the right side of the road. He finally settled on Smashing Pumpkins. Cracked through the better, though still imperfect HP speakers, Billy Corgan’s voice rang through the Volvo, out the windows, and into the otherwise silent night. We sang along with him: “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a… CAAAAAGGGGGGGE!”
The Volvo made it to the top of one hill where we would instantly see the next, each one curving into a wooded holler, as if part of a themed ride at an amusement park. The central Kentucky knobs, undisturbed and nearly uninhabited, are dark enough to hold ancient, sleeping secrets.
We were on our way to The Shrine – a religious monument atop one of these hills. No one knew why it was there – we definitely didn’t, at least – it was just a place the local kids liked to go to kill time and scare one another. A wooden set of stairs led up the hill to a rustic sanctuary at its summit. A few rows of brittle, makeshift pews lined the top, leading to an icon of Mary, standing high above the pews atop a pillar of stacked stone plucked from the creek below. An abandoned mobile home lay halfway up the hill – a dystopian-looking side-attraction on the way to the more classic horror of The Shrine itself. Kids at school made up stories about the mobile home. They said some crazy-fucker murdered his pregnant wife there, and that’s why The Shrine was built atop the hill – as a place to pray for the souls of mother and baby. It was a bizarre place.
Percy skidded the Volvo into the gravel parking lot, stopped abruptly, and wrenched open the squeaking door.
“Well, let’s fucking go, Ed,” he said. He sounded confident – or at least intentionally trying to sound confident – but his voice cracked slightly.
Percy ripped the speakers from the dash before exiting the vehicle and shoved them into his backpack. Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” shouted at us through Percy’s zipped backpack. The music was muffled, as if trapped inside, trying to escape.
We walked to the base of the stairs.
The first few steps creaked under our weight. Small lanterns featuring Catholic iconography of Mary lined each side of the stairway. The candles, unused in who could guess how long, were unlit, and some of the makeshift stained glass encasing the lanterns was cracked – scars across the face of the virgin mother.
Before making it to the top of the first part of the stairway, we noticed some headlights. Another car was pulling into the lot.
“Fuck,” said Percy, “I wonder who that could be?”
Smoke unfurled like a forest fire from the now opening car doors, lifting high into the cold air before merging into the gathering fog.
“Let’s go, pussies!” said one of the voices from the car. Two of the other doors opened. There were two boys and one girl.
“God dammit,” I said, “That’s Lance and Philip. I don’t know who’s with them, probably Jasmine. She’s dating Lance, I think.”
Lance and Philip were two kids from school – seniors. They were gigantic dicks.
Percy had already hopped over the ledge of the stairway onto the forest floor below.
“Come on, dude!” he whispered aggressively, “Let’s fucking go!” He was nodding toward the trailer.
“I’m not going there, dude.”
“Dude…” responded Percy, “There’s nothing in there. It’s either go there, or deal with Lance and Philip, which – considering Lance has his lady here – probably won’t be good for us. He’ll want to impress her, or whatever; he’ll be on some serious bullshit, that’s for sure. So will Philip, wanting to impress Lance.”
Percy was right. I lunged over the railing and followed him up the hill and through the woods, to the abandoned mobile home.
Lance, Philip, and Jasmine were in no hurry to ascend the stairway. They even seemed a little frightened, themselves, from what I could hear through my frantic scamper up the hillside.
“Did you hear that?” said Philip, “Sounded like something running up the hill! What the fuck was that?”
“Stop being such a little bitch,” said Lance. It was probably a squirrel. Those things sound as big as a deer when they’re running through piles of dry leaves. Let’s go!”
Lance hopped dramatically onto the foot of the first stair – clutching the railing to intentionally shake and sway the entirety of the brittle old stairway, as if to emphasize his nonchalance.
“What’s this?” he said, terror filling his voice, “What the fuck is this? Something is shaking the stairs! I can’t move!” Lance fell to the floor, flailing spasmodically. He then lay in opossum-like motionlessness for some time. Suddenly springing into animated wakefulness, he started laughing, pointing at Philip.
“Let’s go, you goddamn pussy!” He then barreled up the stairs, Philip and Jasmine following timidly behind.
Percy and I made it up to the mobile home. It sat on weathered, buckling stilts against the slope of the hill, its fortifications shoved deep into the damp mud of the earth. The shutters, a strange, dark shade of purple, were crooked and asymmetrical – some of them had fallen to the ground and were now buried by years of dirt and plant matter. A wooden staircase, not at all dissimilar to the one leading up to The Shrine, led from the hillside to the rickety storm door of the trailer. The door banged periodically against the house as the wind blew.
Wanting to create as little noise as possible, Percy avoided that trap in favor of the underbelly of the house. I followed him with the anxious pace of an inexperienced private trailing his staff sergeant through a warzone, not thinking anything of the creeping darkness living below the trailer until well-settled within. Sinking into the moldy, clay-like goop of the sun-deprived interior, I crouched to hide, turning back toward the staircase leading to The Shrine. Lance and his retinue were now making their way up more quickly. Philip and Jasmine seemed even to have shed their previous fear. I looked at Percy, who was now, for some reason, examining an ancient push lawn mower partially wedged in the mud.
“Look at this shit!” whispered Percy, “It’s still perfectly good! I bet there’s all sorts of shit inside we could take out and sell! Maybe we could make enough for some real speakers for the Volvo! Some nice ones! Those bastards are nearly up to The Shrine, anyway! They can’t hear us! Let’s go check it out!”
Before I could express my disagreement, Percy stepped hurriedly back toward the wooden steps leading to the front door. Before making it out from within the intestines of the place, he accidentally kicked an old glass beer bottle encased in the mud. It clanked loudly against the old stairs. Lance, Philip, and Jasmine’s footsteps ceased.
“ ‘ the fuck was that?” said Philip.
“Who knows” responded Lance, “probably just a stray cat. Let’s go check it out!”
“Dude!” said Philip, “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. There was another car in the parking lot, remember? It could be some weirdos, some freaks in there doing god knows what. Fucking smack-heads or some shit.”
“Whatever,” said Lance, “I’ll go it alone. You’re such a little bitch, Philip.”
Lance hopped the railing of the stairwell to the hillside, leaves crunching under his weight.
“I’m not going there!” said Jasmine, “You two go, and I’ll stay here! Fuck that shit!”
Philip, not wanting to waste his chance to remove himself from the expedition, responded, “You can’t stay here by yourself! I’ll stay with you, just in case.”
“Jesus!” yelled Lance turning back toward them, his voice now ironically carrying up the hill to the stone-stacked monument to the messiah’s mother. “I guess I have to do everything myself!” Lance barreled off in the direction of the trailer.
“Fuck!” I whispered, looking to Percy for an idea. He didn’t immediately provide me with one, so I repeated my concern: “Fuck!”
“Shit!” Percy responded in agreement, “Let’s go! Follow me! Percy then sprinted up the stairs into the trailer. I followed him, clumsily kicking remnants of trash–artifacts from a previous time–creating even more unnatural sounds. Lance quickened his pace, his footsteps reverberating around the natural, spherical wall of the forest canopy.
We made it inside – though not unheard and likely not unseen. Lance followed like a famished, rabid coyote. He wasn’t far behind us; he had long legs. He was fast.
Upon entering the trailer, we bolted through the still-furnished living room into the bedroom on the far-end of the place – the side furthest from the stairwell leading up to The Shrine. A box spring, underneath a mattress, lay on the floor. Diving behind it – on the side furthest the entrance to the room – we laid down and made ourselves as small as possible, trying to shield our bodies from Lance’s future field of vision.
He entered the trailer, slamming shut the creaking door. “Helloooooooo!” he said gaily, walking briefly into the living room before turning away and heading into the kitchen. He opened the kitchen windows, looking outside in Philip and Jasmine’s direction.
“Hey Philip, Hey babe!” he said, “It’s not so bad in here! You all should come check it out!”
Jasmine and Philip both yelled something in response, but I was unable to hear it. Lance couldn’t either. He kept screaming from the kitchen window on the far side of the trailer, telling them to repeat themselves. Eventually, he shut the window and turned back into the living room. He sat on the couch. I could hear it squeaking and buckling under his weight. A rat scurried out from underneath. Lance leapt up, crashing hard against the back wall of the trailer.
“What the fuck!” he screamed in fear before falling back down, laughing at his own jumpiness. “Fucking rats,” he concluded.
He got up from the couch and walked into to the bedroom. “Hmm,” he said, “I wonder what was making all that noise I heard outside. It couldn’t have been the rat… Rats can be pretty noisy, but not that noisy.”
He walked around the room. He whipped open the closet opposite the bed. Nothing there. He jumped onto the mattress and leaned over the side– his face was right next to ours.
“Well, what’s this? It looks like it is two more rats! Two big ones! This goddamn place is infested! Good thing I have a passion for extermination! I’ll even do it for free!”
Grabbing and ripping our shirts, he yanked us up and dragged us out of the trailer. Neither of us could keep our balance. Percy fell twice, and each time Lance berated him for his lack of balance; each time Percy’s shirt ripped further. Lance just tore the whole thing off, pushing Percy, shirtless, through the front door. Once outside, he pulled Percy backward by his backpack – as if nocking a bow – and then shoved him down the stairs into the mud. I avoided that fate by dislodging myself from his grasp and running down the stairs of my own accord.
“Look what I found!” Lance yelled to Philip and Jasmine, “two big-ass dirty rats!”
“That’s fucking gross,” said Jasmine, still unable to see us, “don’t bring those things over here!”
“Oh, I’m bringing them!” said Lance.
Coming into their field of vision, Philip began laughing hysterically.
“What the fuck are you two dumbasses doing here?” he said. “What were you two doing in that trailer, huh? I’ll bet I can guess!”
“And you would guess correctly!” said Lance, “I found them together in the bedroom! There’s still a mattress in that place! It’s dirty as hell! Bedbugs all over it, I’m sure! You two boys are fucking nasty!”
There was no escape, I knew that. We were to be Lance’s entertainment – his punching bags – until he tired of us.
We continued up the stairs toward the shrine. Percy and I led the way, shoved forward by Lance or Philip, who had at this point joined in, too, feeling, I guess, that we presnted no danger. He was unnaturally sweaty, even though it was a breezy evening, and smelled like ass. At one point, I tripped, bruising my shin against the splintery stairs. Philip crouched to my level and spewed his rancid, Grizzly-Wintergreen-soaked breath into my face.
“You need to walk better than that, little man! Don’t trip me up! I’m not going to be happy if your clumsiness trips me up!”
He spit dip onto my pants and then shoved me forward. I fell again. The lanterns, depicting the Queen of Heaven, shook in quiet protest. We were nearly to the summit of the knob – nearly to The Shrine.
When we reached the top, Philip dragged me past the three rows of makeshift pews, and threw me down before the stone altar. Lance did the same to Percy, who fell on his back. His Zune came to life and a muffled “Decades,” by Joy Division, provided background music as Lance and Philip stood over us.
“What are you going to do to them, anyway?” asked Jasmine, sitting in the back row on one of the wobbly old benches. “Is there any point to all of this? Like, I know they’re two little shitheads, but still… Isn’t this kind of a waste of time? It’s ruining The Shrine for me. This place is supposed to be scary, right? I must say, boys – so far I’m just bored!” She pulled a Newport Green from her pack and lit it, spitting out the menthol smoke in frustration.
“Of course, there’s a point!” Lance snapped. “These two little bastards need to stop thinking they can hide in the bushes and avoid us! It’s disrespectful! They need to be taught some manners! A simple hello! That’s all I wanted! Don’t just run away, am I right?” Lance looked to Philip, “Am I right, Phil?”
“Uh, yeah!” he responded, confused, “let’s teach these little fuckers some manners!”
Percy and I were at the foot of the altar. Not in a traditional kneeling prayer-stance, though. We were cowering, covering our heads with our hands as if in preparation for a tornado. The ghostly keys and priestly vocals of Joy Division continued:
“…Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders; here are the young men, well where have they been? We knocked on the doors of Hell's darker chamber. Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in…”
My forehead felt the cold moss of the stone. Looking up, I watched the face of Mary in the portrait sitting atop the altar shift from her usual compassion into a darker, more demented look. Her eyes went from calming and round to deep-black and blade-like. Her mouth twisted into a curving grin, showing needle-pointed, serpentine fangs. She looked like she could inhale the soul of any unfortunate onlooker.
“Hello, there, young boys!” came a jovial voice from behind us.
Jasmine turned and shrieked, falling off the rickety bench to the damp dirt below. Lance and Philip turned as well. Even Percy and I – trying our best to obey our orders – couldn’t help but turn around. There was an elderly woman, at least eighty, standing just beyond the row of pews. She had apparently just walked up, though not from the path. She seemed to have come out of the woods. She was pregnant. She squatted down, barely able to walk. How a woman of that age – much less a pregnant woman of that age – could scale the entirety of the knob, especially through the wood, was beyond me. It simply wasn’t possible. She fell to her knees and unleashed a cackling laugh.
“I think it’s time!” she said, gripping her abdomen in clearly excruciating, though seemingly pleasant pain.
She fell to the earth, her back against the ground, and closed her eyes. Climbing out of her more quickly than humanly possible crawled a baby.
Pink and wet, it clutched at the dirt – like a primate grasping for a tree branch – and grabbed a handful, tasting it before looking up to the stone altar. When it saw Lance and Philip standing at the altar’s head, the child shrieked in otherworldly anger, shaking the trees and causing a bevy of doves to take flight in retreat. The newborn creature grew – within the space of only several seconds – from its previous wriggling form into a stature greater than that of Lance or Philip. Its face, at first new, shifted quickly into a leathery, eldritch hardness. After swelling to the height of a tall man, its legs continued their weed-like growth, spurring the totality of the beast’s height to nearly ten feet. Still unfamiliar with walking, it wobbled clumsily toward the altar like a pair of vulnerable young trees during a thunderstorm.
Jasmine screamed, crab walking backward on the ground, back to the barbed-wire fence lining the backside of The Shrine – leading from the top of the knob onto a neighboring cow field. Philip swallowed his dip then wretched, dropping onto his knees and vomiting into the dirt. This irritated the newborn creature. Inadvisably darting forward, it crashed through the old, brittle pews and tripped hard into Philip, crushing him against the stone of The Shrine. The demon creature lifted Philip as though he were a living twig and slung him backward, toward the old trailer, into the trees. We heard him rolling through the leaves down the knob. He was no louder than a squirrel, or a rat.
Lance cowered backward into the stone altar, gripping its chilled surface.
“Whaa… what?” he squealed. The creature lifted him, held him over the shrine and split him in half like crunchy, stale bread. Lance’s blood spilled over the statue of the Virgin Mother – over Percy and me. It drenched my shirt. It soaked Percy’s still bare back. Looking up through the red rain, I saw the statue of Mary standing regally atop her rock mound, grinning insanely before retreating into her usual, sublime stare.
The creature dissolved into the dirt, which, upon closer examination, I realized was stained crimson. The ground encircling The Shrine was soaked with blood. But too much for just this particular satanic incident. I felt like I was standing in the blood spilled from numerous, similar encounters.
The old woman again cackled. She stood, gripping her still split-open body. She laughed continuously as she walked back into the woods, in the direction of the trailer, leaving a trail of blood in her wake.
Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at The Horror Tree, White Enso, White Cat Publications, Short-Story.me, Savage Planet, Tall Tale TV, The Corner Bar, A Thin Line of Anxiety, Schlock, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary.
Published on the Kaidankai on October 5, 2022.
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Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.