Stoker Award finalist THE RED CHURCH
For 13-year-old Ronnie Day, life is full of problems: Mom and Dad have separated, his brother Tim is a constant pest, Melanie Ward either loves him or hates him, and Jesus Christ won't stay in his heart. Plus he has to walk past the red church every day, where the Bell Monster hides with its wings and claws and livers for eyes. But the biggest problem is that Archer McFall is the new preacher at the church, and Mom wants Ronnie to attend midnight services with her.
Sheriff Frank Littlefield hates the red church for a different reason. His little brother died in a freak accident at the church twenty years ago, and now Frank is starting to see his brother's ghost. And the ghost keeps demanding, "Free me." People are dying in Whispering Pines, and the murders coincide with McFall's return.
The Days, the Littlefields, and the McFalls are descendants of the original families that settled the rural Appalachian community. Those old families share a secret of betrayal and guilt, and McFall wants his congregation to prove its faith. Because he believes he is the Second Son of God, and that the cleansing of sin must be done in blood.
"Sacrifice is the currency of God," McFall preaches, and unless Frank and Ronnie stop him, everybody pays.
Nicholson writes in a style that feels both new and familiar, his descriptions and characters so haunting they make putting the book down almost impossible. The Red Church offers a unique twist on the end times, asking just how easily it might be for the Antichrist to collect his own followers, and how easy the truth might be to twist. – Martin Kee
"Like Stephen King, he knows how to summon serious scares."–Bentley Little, The Haunting
"Hold onto your pants, because Nicholson is about to scare them off."–J.A. Konrath, Origin
"Scott Nicholson knows the territory. Follow him at your own risk."–Stewart O’Nan, A Face in the Crowd
The world never ends the way you believe it will, Ronnie Day thought.
There were the tried-and-true favorites, like nuclear holocaust and doomsday asteroid collisions and killer viruses and Preacher Staymore's all-time classic, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But the end really wasn't such a huge, organized affair after all. The end was right up close and personal, different for each person, a kick in the rear and a joy-buzzer handshake from the Reaper himself.
But that was the Big End. First you had to twist your way though a thousand turning points and die a little each time. One of life's lessons, learned as the by-product of thirteen years as the son of Linda and David Day and one semester sitting in class with Melanie Ward. Tough noogies, wasn't it?
Ronnie walked quickly, staring straight ahead. Another day in the idiot factory at good old Barkersville Elementary was over. Had all evening to look forward to, and a good long walk between him and home. Nothing but his feet and the smell of damp leaves, fresh grass, and the wet mud of the riverbanks. A nice plate of spring sunshine high overhead.
And he could start slowing down in a minute, delaying his arrival into the hell that home had been lately, because soon he would be around the curve and past the thing on the hill to his right, the thing he didn't want to think about, the thing he couldn't help thinking about, because he had to walk past it twice a day.
Why couldn't he be like the other kids? Their parents picked them up in shiny new Mazdas and Nissans and took them to the mall in Barkersville and dropped them off at soccer practice and then drove them right to the front door of their houses. So all they had to do was step in and stuff their faces with microwave dinners and go to their rooms and waste their brains on TV or Nintendo all night. They didn't have to be scared.
Well, it could be worse. He had a brain, but it wasn't something worth bragging about. His "overactive imagination" got him in trouble at school, but it was also kind of nice when other kids, especially Melanie, asked him for help in English.
So he'd take having a brain any day, even if he did suffer what the school counselor called "negative thoughts." At least he had thoughts. Unlike his little dorkwad of a brother back there, who didn't have sense enough to know that this stretch of road was no place to be messing around.
"Hey, Ronnie." His brother was calling him, it sounded like from the top of the hill. The dorkwad hadn't stopped, had he?
"Come on." Ronnie didn't turn around.
"Come on, or I'll bust you upside the head."
"No, really, Ronnie. I see something."
Ronnie sighed and stopped walking, then slung his book bag farther up on his shoulder. He was at least eighty feet ahead of his little brother. Tim had been doing his typical nine-year-old's dawdling, stopping occasionally to tie his sneaker strings or look in the ditch water for tadpoles or throw rocks at the river that ran below the road.
Ronnie turned—to your left, he told himself, so you don't see it—and looked back along the sweep of gravel at the hill that was almost lost among the green bulk of mountains. He could think of a hundred reasons not to walk all the way back to see what Tim wanted him to see. For one thing, Tim was at the top of the hill, which meant Ronnie would have to hike up the steep grade again. The walk home from the bus stop was nearly a mile and a half already. Why make it longer?
Plus there were at least ninety-nine other reasons—
like the red church
—not to give a flying fig what Tim was sticking his nose into now. Dad was supposed to stop by today to pick up some more stuff, and Ronnie didn't want to miss him. Maybe they'd get to talk for a minute, man-to-man. If Tim didn't hurry, Dad and Mom might have another argument first and Dad would leave like he had last week, stomping the gas pedal of his rusty Ford so the wheels threw chunks of gravel and broke a window. So that was another reason not to go back to see whatever had gotten Tim so worked up.
Tim jumped up and down, the rolled cuffs of his blue jeans sagging around his sneakers. He motioned with his thin arm, his glasses flashing in the mid-afternoon sun. "C'mon, Ronnie," he shouted.
"Dingle-dork," Ronnie muttered to himself, then started backtracking up the grade. He kept his eyes on the gravel the way he always did when he was near the church. The sun made little sparkles in the rocks, and with a little imagination, the roadbed could turn into a big galaxy with lots of stars and planets, and if he didn't look to his left he wouldn't have to see the red church.
Why should he be afraid of some dumb old church? A church was a church. It was like your heart. Once Jesus came in, He was supposed to stay there. But sometimes you did bad things that drove Him away.
Ronnie peeked at the church just to prove that he didn't care about it one way or another. There. Nothing but wood and nails.
But he'd hardly glanced at it. He'd really seen only a little piece of the church's mossy gray roof, because of all the trees that lined the road- big old oaks and a gnarled apple tree and a crooked dogwood that would have been great for climbing except if you got to the top, you'd be right at eye level with the steeple and the belfry.
Stupid trees, he thought. All happy because it's May and their leaves are waving in the wind and, if they were people, I bet they'd be wearing idiotic smiles just like the one that's probably splitting up Tim's face right now. Because, just like little bro, the trees are too doggoned dumb to be scared.
Ronnie slowed down a little. Tim had walked into the shade of the maple. Into the jungle of weeds that formed a natural fence along the road. And maybe to the edge of the graveyard.
Ronnie swallowed hard. He'd just started developing an Adam's apple, and he could feel the knot pogo in his throat. He stopped walking. He'd thought of reason number hundred and one not to go over to the churchyard. Because—and this was the best reason of all, one that made Ronnie almost giddy with relief—he was the older brother. Tim had to listen to him. If he gave in to the little mucous midget even once, he would be asking for a lifetime of "Ronnie, do this" and "Ronnie, do that." He got enough of that kind of treatment from Mom.
"Hurry up," Tim called from the weeds. Ronnie couldn't see Tim's face. That wasn't all bad. Tim had buck teeth and his blond hair stuck out like straw and his eyes were a little buggy. Good thing he was in the fourth grade instead of the eighth grade. Because in the eighth grade, you had to impress girls like Melanie Ward, who would laugh in your face one day and sit in the desk behind you the next, until you were so torn up that you didn't even care about things like whatever mess your dorkwad brother was getting into at the moment. "Get out of there, you idiot. You know you're not supposed to go into the churchyard."
The leaves rustled where Tim had disappeared into the underbrush. He'd left his book bag lying in the grass at the base of a tree. His squeaky voice came from beyond the tangle of saplings and laurel. "I found something."
"Get out of there right this minute."
"Because I said so."
"But look what I found."
Ronnie came closer. He had to admit, he was a little bit curious, even though he was starting to get mad. Not to mention scared. Because through the gaps in the trees, he could see the graveyard.
A slope of thick, evenly cut grass broken up by white and gray slabs. Tombstones. At least forty dead people, just waiting to rise up and-
Those are just stories. You don't actually believe that stuff, do you? Who cares what Whizzer Buchanan says? If he were so smart, he wouldn't be flunking three classes.
"We're going to miss Dad," Ronnie called. His voice trembled slightly. He hoped Tim hadn't noticed.
"Just a minute."
"I ain't got a minute."
"You chicken or something?"
That did it. Ronnie balled up his fists and hurried to the spot where Tim had entered the churchyard. He set his book bag beside Tim's and stepped among the crushed weeds. Furry ropes of poison sumac veined across the ground. Red-stemmed briars bent under the snowy weight of blackberry blossoms. And Ronnie would bet a Spiderman comic that snakes slithered in that high grass along the ditch.
"Where are you?" Ronnie called into the bushes.
He was in the graveyard, the stupid little jerk. How many times had Dad told them to stay out of the graveyard?
Not that Ronnie needed reminding. But that was Tim for you. Tell him to not to touch a hot stove eye and you could smell the sizzling flesh of his fingers before you even finished your sentence.
Ronnie stooped to about Tim's height—twerp's-eye view—and saw the graveyard through the path that Tim had stomped. Tim was kneeling beside an old marble tombstone, looking down. He picked something up and it flashed in the sun. A bottle.
Ronnie looked past his little brother to the uneven rows of markers. Some were cracked and chipped, all of them worn around the edges. Old graves. Old dead people. So long dead that they were probably too rotten to lift themselves out of the soil and walk into the red church.
No, it wasn't a church anymore, just an old building that Lester Matheson used for storing hay. Hadn't been a church for about twenty years. Like Lester had said, pausing to let a stream of brown juice arc to the ground, then wiping his lips with the scarred stump of his thumb, "It's people what makes a church. Without people, and what-and-all they believe, it ain't nothing but a fancy mouse motel."
Yeah. Fancy mouse motel. Nothing scary about that, is there?
It was just like the First Baptist Church, if you really thought about it. Except the Baptist church was bigger. And the only time the Baptist church was scary was when Preacher Staymore said Ronnie needed saving or else Jesus Christ would send him to burn in hell forever.
Ronnie scrambled through the bushes. A briar snagged his X-Files T-shirt, the one that Melanie thought was so cool. He backed up and pulled himself free, cursing as a thorn pierced his finger. A drop of crimson welled up and he started to wipe it on his shirt, then licked it away instead.
Tim put the bottle down and picked up something else. A magazine. Its pages fluttered in the breeze. Ronnie stepped clear of the brush and stood up.
So he was in the graveyard. No big deal. And if he kept his eyes straight ahead, he wouldn't even have to see the fancy mouse motel. But then he forgot all about trying not to be scared, because of what Tim had in his hands.
As Ronnie came beside him, Tim snapped the magazine closed. But not before Ronnie had gotten a good look at the pale flesh spread along the pages. Timmy's cheeks turned pink. He had found a Playboy.
"Give me that," Ronnie said.
Tim faced his brother and put the magazine behind his back. "I—I'm the one who found it."
"Yeah, and you don't even know what it is, do you?"
Tim stared at the ground. "A naked-woman book."
Ronnie started to laugh, but it choked off as he looked around the graveyard. "Where did you learn about girlie magazines?"
"Whizzer. He showed one to us behind the gym during recess."
"Probably charged you a dollar a peek."
"No, just a quarter."
"Give it here, or I'll tell Mom."
"No, you won't."
"What are you going to tell her? That I found a naked-woman book and wouldn't let you see it?"
Ronnie grimaced. Score one for dingle-dork. He thought about jumping Tim and taking the magazine by force, but there was no need to hurry. Tricking him out of it would be a lot more fun. But he didn't want to stand around in the creepy graveyard and negotiate.
He looked at the other stuff scattered on the grass around the tombstone. The bottle had a square base and a black screw top. A few inches of golden-brown liquid were lying in the bottom. He knew it was liquor because of the turkey on the label. It was the kind that Aunt Donna drank. But Ronnie didn't want to think about Aunt Donna almost as much as he didn't want to think about being scared.
A green baseball cap lay upside down beside the tombstone. The sweatband was stained a dark gray, and the bill was so severely cupped that it came to a frayed point. Only one person rolled up their cap bill that way. Ronnie nudged the cap over with his foot. A John Deere cap. That cinched it.
"It's Boonie Houck's," Ronnie said. But Boonie never went anywhere without his cap. Kept it pulled down to the bushy line of his single eyebrow, his eyes gleaming under the shade of the bill like wet ball bearings. He probably even showered and slept with the cap plastered to the top of his wide head.
A crumpled potato chip bag quivered beside the cap, fluttering in the breeze. It was held in place by an unopened can of Coca-Cola. The blind eye of a flashlight peeked out from under the edge of the chip bag.
Ronnie bent down and saw a flash of silver. Money. He picked up two dimes and a dull nickel. A couple of pennies were in the grass, but he left them. He straightened up.
"I'll give you twenty-five cents for the magazine," he said.
Tim backed away with his hands still behind him. He moved into the shadow of a crude stone monument, made of two pillars holding up a crosspiece. On the crosspiece was a weathered planter. A brittle sheaf of brown tulips stabbed up from the potting soil.
Tulips. So somebody had minded the graveyard at least once since winter. Probably Lester. Lester owned the property and kept the grass trimmed, but did that mean the tobacco-chewing farmer had to pay respects to those buried here? Did the dead folks come with the property deed?
But Ronnie forgot all that, because he accidentally looked over Tim's shoulder. The red church was framed up perfectly by the stone pillars.
No, NOT accidentally. You WANTED to see it. Your eyes have been crawling right toward it the whole time you've been in the graveyard.
The church sat on a broad stack of creek stones that were bleached yellow and white by eons of running water. A few of the stones had tumbled away, revealing gaps of darkness beneath the structure. The church looked a little wobbly, as if a strong wind might send it roof-over-joist down the hill.
The creepy tree stood tall and gangly by the door. Ronnie didn't believe Whizzer's story about the tree. But if even half of it were true-
"A quarter? I can take it to school and make five bucks," Tim said.
The magazine. Ronnie didn't care about the magazine anymore. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
"You're going to take it from me, ain't you?"
"No. Dad's supposed to be coming over, that's all. I don't want to miss him."
Tim suddenly took another step backward, his eyes wide.
Ronnie pointed, trying to warn him about the monument. Tim spun and bumped into one of the pillars, shaking the crosspiece. The concrete planter tipped over, sending a shower of dry black dirt onto Tim's head. The planter rolled toward the edge of the crosspiece.
"Look out," Ronnie yelled.
Tim pushed himself away from the pillar, but the entire monument toppled as if in slow motion. The heavy crosspiece was going to squash Tim's head like a rotten watermelon.
Ronnie's limbs unlocked and he leaped for Tim. Something caught his foot and he tripped, falling on his stomach. The air rushed from his lungs with a whoosh, and the smell of cut grass crowded his nostrils. He tasted blood, and his tongue found the gash on the inside of his lip just as he rediscovered how to breathe.
A dull cracking noise echoed across the graveyard. Ronnie tilted his neck up just in time to see the planter bust open on the monument's base. Tim gave a squeak of surprise as dingy chunks of concrete rained across his chest. The pillars fell in opposite directions, the one on Tim's side catching on the ledge just above his head. The crosspiece twirled like a slow helicopter blade and came to rest on the pillar above Tim's legs.
Ronnie tried to crawl to Tim, but his shoe was still snagged. "You okay?"
Tim was crying. At least that meant he was still alive.
Ronnie kicked his foot. He looked back to his shoe—
NO NO NO
—red raw burger hand.
An arm had reached around the tombstone, a bloody arm, the knotty fingers forming a talon around his sneaker. The wet, gleaming bone of one knuckle hooked the laces.
He forgot that he'd learned how to breathe. He kicked at the hand, spun over on his rear, and tried to crab-crawl away. The hand wouldn't let go. Tears stung his eyes as he stomped his other foot against the ragged grasping thing.
"Help me," Ronnie yelled, at the same time that Tim moaned his own plea for help.
Whizzer's words careened across Ronnie's mind, joining the jumble of broken thoughts: They trap ya, then they get ya.