Another entry into our annual “Humor Meets Horror” contest. This one from one of our yearly contributors J. Michael Radcliffe, who is also a past winner too. Great post!
J. Michael Radcliffe lives in rural Kentucky with his family, where he spins stories out of the wisps of magic around him. Their home is guarded by seven ferocious felines, who diligently patrol the grounds hunting for irks and weedles. His writing is supervised by Idris, a temperamental dragon, who critiques Michael’s stories about dragons, wizards and magic. Michael’s twitter name, @Alderdrache, comes from one of his books and means “elder dragon.”
The church bells at St. Andrew pealed loudly, their melodious tones echoing across the village. The chimes had sounded hundreds of times; times of joy and celebration, times of sadness and sorrow. The bells could signal new beginnings, or untimely endings. The gray stone cathedral with its tall, arched windows had been a gathering place for the community for over two hundred years. Father Humphrey especially enjoyed weddings; seeing happy young couples starting down life’s path. He had been the priest of St. Andrews for almost thirty years now, counseling his small congregation and sharing in their joys and their tears. Today should have been one of the happy days, when he would wed young Sarah to her longtime sweetheart, Nick. He had known the family for years and watched both Sarah and Nick grow up, and was certain they were perfect for each other. But then, of course, there was Sarah’s mother.
“Really, Father,” complained Phyllis in her nasally voice, “must the bells go on for so long?”
Father Humphrey put on his best smile and made a concerted effort not to roll his eyes.
She’s the mother of the bride, the MOTB, he thought to himself for the hundredth time. She just wants today to be perfect.
“It’s tradition, Mrs. Peabody. The bells signal a joyous beginning for the new couple, about to be wed.”
“Hmph!” she snorted. “If you ask me, they signal the coming of a gigantic headache. And it is Ms. Peabody, not Mrs.! I divorced that fool of a husband years ago.”
“Yes, of course, Ms. Peabody,” he said with a sigh.
The bride’s mother had arrived at the church two hours early to oversee preparations. A petite woman dressed in a mouse-gray suit and sensible black shoes, she wore a permanent scowl on her face. Her once-dark hair, now streaked with white, was pulled back into a tight bun that made her look even more unhappy. She complained about everything. The high arched windows at the front of the church were too dark and foreboding. The sanctuary was too damp and drafty. The flowers were the wrong shade of pink. The bride’s bouquet was too small, and the maid-of-honor’s bouquet was too large. The horrible woman had already made the wedding planner cry twice, and her daughter Sarah, the bride, cry once.
Poor girl is nothing like her mother, thanks be to God.
Father Humphrey felt sorry for the young couple, who seemed so very much in love. The groom was a perfect gentleman, and had doted on his bride-to-be at the rehearsal. But he was completely browbeaten by his future mother-in-law, who saw fit to criticize him in front of the entire wedding party, about everything from the length of his hair to the style of his eyeglasses.
Poor boy looks as if he might try to make a run for it.
The church bells at St. Bernard’s chimed in counterpoint to the bells at St. Andrew’s across town, their sonorous tones heralding the sudden, unexpected end to a life not fully lived. A near twin to St. Andrew’s, the church had been founded across the river to serve the needs of the parish outside the city.
Such a pity, thought the vicar. To die alone is just not how it should be.
He looked down at the man in the casket. Arthur Peabody had been a quiet man. In his late fifties, with thinning hair and smile lines around his eyes, he looked like he was at peace, but the vicar knew better. Arthur had married at an early age, and did his best to make his wife happy. He devoted his life to her, working hard to grant her every whim, but in the end it simply wasn’t enough and Phyllis had divorced him. Not wishing to upset his daughter Sarah, Arthur had not contested anything, and Phyllis took every last penny he had. Phyllis had refused to let him see Sarah, and over the years had even tried to poison her against his memory. Forced to attend church across town, he would often stop by to chat with Father Humphrey to ask about his daughter. An accountant by trade, he worked diligently every day and saved every penny he made to give to his ex-wife and daughter. When Sarah’s wedding was announced, Phyllis ensured he was not invited. Not long afterwards he had fallen into a deep depression. His neighbor had called in to check on him and found him on the floor of his living room. Although the autopsy declared he had suffered from a massive heart attack, everyone knew it was really from a broken heart. But even in death Arthur had tried to care for his family. His life insurance policy established a trust for Sarah in the amount of one million dollars, with the residual income paying her a stipend for life.
It’s just not right, thought the vicar as he looked around the empty church. The poor soul deserved better than this, and yet that awful shrew will dance upon his grave.
Sparks flew from the horses’ hooves as they struck the stone pathway, the black carriage careening from side to side as the gaunt stallions galloped through the underworld. The driver swung his bony arm and cracked the whip again, urging the steeds onward through the darkness, their red eyes glowing and flames dancing from their nostrils. The red lanterns on the carriage cast an eerie glow as the black-robed coachman guided his vehicle through the maze of dark, twisted trees.
Damn! the coachman thought bitterly. Twelve centuries and I have never been late, not once! Not until now!
He cracked the whip again and the steeds whinnied angrily as he urged them forward. The Dark Lord would not be pleased if he did not return on time. Cocking his head to one side, the coachman could hear the church bells in the distance, calling out to him as he raced against time to claim his passenger.
The sky grew dark over St. Bernard’s and a cold rain began to fall, as thunder rumbled in the distance. The lights in the sanctuary flickered and went out, and the vicar lit the candles on the altar. He looked down on his charge one last time, said a brief prayer, and closed the coffin. As the last bolt slid into place, a loud clap of thunder rattled the window panes, and the dark carriage came to a halt a few feet away. The black horses, their eyes glowing red as they tossed their heads back and forth, panted from their race to the surface. The coachman looked down at the vicar, and then at the coffin.
“Peabody?” echoed the deep, ghostly voice from somewhere beneath the folds of his hood.
The priest thought for a moment and then shook his head. “It’s not right, I tell you,” he told the coachman. “What did this poor man do to deserve an eternity in Hell?”
“Nothing,” said the driver with a shrug. “His line is cursed. I would still escort him to the underworld, no matter his actions in life.”
“Is there no other way?”
The black hood shook back and forth. “I have been sent to collect the soul of a mortal named Peabody.”
“Well then, why didn’t you say so?” said the vicar with a smile. “I’m afraid you have the wrong church. You’ll be wanting St. Andrew’s on the other side of the village.”
The driver’s gleaming red eyes narrowed, his face still hidden by the shadows of the dark cowl. He grunted, and then cracked the whip again and the carriage shot forward in a flash. As the lights flickered back on, the vicar smiled as he blew out the candles.
Father Humphrey grimaced as Ms. Peabody’s angry rant echoed through the sanctuary.
“I won’t have it, I tell you!” she snapped. “The light from the chandeliers is too harsh. The candles at the altar are the only light I want. Now turn those lights off, this instant!”
As thunder rumbled in the distance, the lights went out, leaving the sanctuary dimly lit by the candelabras at the front of the pulpit. Phyllis nodded her approval and turned on Father Tom like she was about to kill a snake.
“Now, I want to see the carriage that will take my daughter and her worthless fiancé to their hotel.”
Before Father Tom could object, Phyllis walked briskly down the aisle and out the front doors. He hurried to catch up to her and found her at the base of the front steps looking at the carriage that had just arrived.
“Black?” asked Phyllis as she eyed the carriage skeptically. “Ha!” she said triumphantly after a few moments of thought. “It’s perfect! It will serve my daughter right for marrying that loser.”
The coachman glanced at the priest and then back down at Phyllis, his red eyes gleaming.
“That’s Ms. Peabody, you idiot,” she snapped. “Now take me around the block; I need to calm my nerves after dealing with this catastrophe of a wedding.”
Pulling the door of the coach open, she stepped in and slammed the door shut.
“I said go, driver… NOW!”
The driver looked at the priest and shrugged his bony shoulders. A soul was a soul, and Lucifer would not care either way. He flicked his wrist and cracked the whip, red sparks flying from its tip. The horses reared up and pawed the air, before taking off at a full gallop back from whence they came.