A graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, Stephen Woodworth is the author of the New York Times best-selling Violet series of paranormal thrillers, including Through Violet Eyes, With Red Hands, In Golden Blood, and From Black Rooms (Random House, 2004–06). His short fiction has appeared in such publications as Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Fantasy, and The Dead That Walk, and he has other tales forthcoming in Nameless and Midian Unmade, an anthology of stories inspired by the works of Clive Barker. He is currently at work on a new novel.
PRICE HUGGED THE LAPELS OF HIS FILTHY DOWN JACKET closer around himself as he squinted down the brick chasm of the alley. Darkened doorways sulked in the walls on either side, offering neither entrance nor exit. The only sign of movement was an empty plastic bag, tumbling hollowly in the gusting draft like a shed skin.
Everything about the place felt wrong. The location was too deserted, too deep into the shunned heart of the city. Most missions stationed their soup kitchens and makeshift chapels on the fringes of the urban blight—close enough to draw the shambling needy, yet removed enough for their staff members to leave safely at night. If Brice had not been so cold and so hungry, even he, a native of the streets, could not have been lured into this district.
He consulted the crumpled flyer in his hand to check the address, but could not read the small typescript. No streetlamps illuminated the surrounding grime of metal-shuttered shops and sewage-scented asphalt. All he could make out was the large heading that first captured his attention:
He’d come by the advertisement not more than an hour ago as he trudged up Main Street toward the nearest shelter that would take him in. A four-mile walk, and he wouldn’t get there till well after midnight. He had no money, no food, no liquor, and the few passersby at that hour bowed their heads and quickened their steps if he so much as looked at them. In summer, he could have curled up on a vacant doorstep and slept till the cops came to shoo him away, but tonight’s bitter winter wind cut right through his stocking cap and frayed jeans, and sleep would be impossible.
Without alcohol to squelch them, unwelcome memories bobbed into his consciousness like the flotsam of a wrecked ship. A job, a wife, a son whom he was no longer permitted to see. Lashed by regret for a life squandered and exhausted by the prospect of the dreary hours ahead, Brice had slumped against an adjacent lamp-post, ready to collapse and die of exposure rather than take another step.
As if in commiseration, a hand grasped his upper arm and squeezed, constricting to the point of painfulness.
Brice straightened to look at the slouching figure that had accosted him. “Leon?”
The man before him wore a gray flannel sweatshirt, the face cowled completely by a pullover hood. Yet in the static world of the homeless, clothing served as much a marker of identity as a face for street people to recognize one another. That hoodie certainly looked like the one Leon always wore, though mottled by new and darker stains. He stank in a way peculiar for a vagrant—a salty putrescence, like the rot of beached kelp. The smell repulsed Brice more than the fetor of sweat and urine he’d expected, and he recoiled, wrinkling his nose.
Whether or not he was Leon, the man didn’t say. He simply peeled a sheet from a sheaf of papers he carried and thrust it at Brice. The latter winced with disgust as he accepted the page—its margins were sticky where the hooded man had touched it.
In the dun glow of the sodium vapor streetlight, Brice saw that most of the sheet was covered with a radiating, serpentine pattern of intertwined lines, as if a map to a labyrinth with no egress. In the ring’s center, calligraphic letters promised “REVIVAL TONIGHT,” with details of the event in smaller print below. Brice noted that both time and location were near.
“They got food?” Brice asked the man he assumed was Leon, but the hooded figure shuffled away without speaking. Brice rubbed his bicep, which was still sore from where the man had clenched it, and cursed when he found finger-shaped smudges where a gummy residue had clung to the sleeve of his jacket.
Leon was not the sort to have got religion. Most likely, Brice thought, someone had paid him a few bucks to distribute the flyers. Brice himself had little hope of salvation, but he’d often turned to the missionaries for a hot meal and a roof over his head. On this night, he’d settle for a cup of coffee and a chance to doze during the sermon.
And so he’d wended through the litter-strewn avenues of this abandoned quarter of the metropolis, advancing in the shadows to avoid being rolled by thrill-seeking gang members. Now that he was here, though, it seemed as if he’d fallen victim to some cruel practical joke. He could find no brightly lit prayer meeting, no hallelujahs and hosannas, no comfort or consolation.
As he scrutinized the flyer, a glimpse of motion in the alley caught his attention. A dim phantom drifted about halfway down the narrow lane—a shuffling figure whose gray, hooded sweat-shirt appeared to float amidst the engulfing blackness. It turned through an open portal on the right and vanished from view.
Brice followed the way Leon—if it was indeed Leon—had gone. He found that the double doors there, though shut, were unlocked. They opened onto a steep stairwell that sloped into what must have been the building’s basement.
Brice hesitated, for there seemed to be no light below, and he wondered if he had selected the correct entrance. As he crossed the threshold, however, he realized that a faint, bluish luminescence clearly delineated the downward steps, though its source was uncertain.
He descended to a low-ceilinged hallway and was heartened to hear music of a sort emanating from the opposite end of the passage—a solemn, sonorous hymn distorted by the odd acoustics of the structure’s cinderblock foundation. The azure phosphorescence grew brighter as he advanced, until it hung like a haze in the air, although it still had no definite origin. This must be the right place after all, Brice decided.
The hallway led to a room that was much larger and higher than he anticipated. Now there could be no question that Brice had found the correct gathering, for the flyer’s spiraling design of interlaced lines had been reproduced on the vast far wall, radiating blue light as if it were an enormous stained-glass window illumined from behind by a great nocturnal sun. Cerulean hues shimmered on a sea of Brice’s fellow derelicts, making them appear submerged. The entire congregation stood swaying in time to the dirge-tempo psalm he’d heard.
Brice grimaced at the lack of benches or folding chairs. No chance to nap here. To avoid attracting attention, he mingled with the crowd at the rear. Slightly out of sync with those around him, he mouthed along with the chorus, whose words he couldn’t quite make out, and made random vocalizations in an attempt to mimic the increasingly atonal canticle. Not like any gospel song Brice had heard before. Maybe this was one of those New Age religious orders. He only hoped they would reward him for enduring their ceremony.
Brice exchanged an embarrassed glance with the man on his left, who also faked the song. Bald crown, walrus mustache, sagging cheeks blotched with rosacea—it was Richie, a friend of his from the streets. They pretended not to recognize each other, however, as if both were ashamed they would stoop to such an indignity just for a handout.
Brice had to admit that the church, whatever denomination it was, put on a good show. As the hymn became more fervent, the pattern on the wall brightened from blue to white, the shifting, swirling intensity of color giving the design an illusion of three-dimensional depth.
When the brightness grew almost unbearable, the silhouette of a cowled figure strode in front of the glowing pattern until it stood beneath the circle’s center. Brice wondered briefly if it was Leon…but no, this figure wore a robe, not a hoodie. It towered over the standing congregation, yet there seemed to be no dais to elevate it. And when it raised its arms in exaltation, the robe’s sleeves slid down to reveal hands with fingers that were too long, too splayed.
Brice had no time for fear, only a stupefied astonishment. For the sinuous lacework pattern on the wall suddenly uncurled, the undulating lines exploding forth as gelatinous tendrils. The tip of each elastic appendage shot out and slapped down on the head of an unsuspecting congregant. A suckling mask of translucent protoplasm enveloped Richie’s silently shrieking face, the membrane distending and stretching the obscured visage into a grotesque new configuration.
Only when Brice felt the soggy smack of ooze on his own head did he comprehend the miracle of which he was now a part.
The burning slime embraced his entire body, melting and molding his flesh like modeling wax. Brice shrieked with the ecstasy of religious conversion, yawned open his mouth to receive the viscous communion that poured down his throat to transubstantiate him from within. He realized that he had been touched by a real, living, tangible god. A god who would remake him in His image.
For the first time in years, Brice was no longer tempted to succumb to despair and die. Not with the purpose that now coursed through him, the mission that he must perform.
Hours later, yet still well before dawn, he shuffled into the foyer of the homeless shelter. Understaffed and overcrowded, the facility consisted of little more than one large dormitory room lined with cots, all of which were already taken. The sole attendant on duty sat at a desk by the entrance, reading by the light of a low-slung shaded desk lamp so as not to wake the occupants.
“Mr. Brice?” She greeted him, as she always did, with a desperate cheerfulness. Her name was Maureen, a volunteer social worker fresh out of college who hadn’t been there long enough to become jaded or embittered by the intractable urban malaise. “We haven’t seen you lately. Are you… okay?”
She obviously hadn’t looked up until he’d passed her. Brice did not turn around. Paper rustled as he thumbed a sheet off the stack in his arm and passed it back to her. The page adhered to his fingers until she peeled it off with an exclamation of distaste.
Then he ambled on into the dormitory, where benighted sleepers awaited his evangelism.