Holly and Wood-Part 1

You’d think with a name like Mark Holly that I might’ve been destined to go into a career involving religion. But I never put much stock in destiny as a concept, or God either for

You’d think with a name like Mark Holly that I might’ve been destined to go into a career involving religion. But I never put much stock in destiny as a concept, or God either for that matter. Don’t tell my parishioners. Guess that makes me a pretty shitty preacher, huh? Using words like “shitty” probably doesn’t help much either.

I never saw anything that made a believer out of me. Maybe it was coming from a small town that had its prosperity tied directly to the coal industry. By the time I came into this world, eighty percent of the county was on food stamps, and the coal trucks that had once dominated the roads had gone extinct. I don’t remember much of my daddy. He left when I was five to find work up north. He was supposed to send for us when he got things nice and settled.

Guess he lost our address.

Ma lingered on for a couple years after that. I’ve got more memories of her than Daddy, but almost all of them are of her sleeping. The older memories are accompanied with the stench of piss and cheap booze. The younger ones contain bruises on her arms and broken needles. One day when I was about seven Ma didn’t wake up. After that, the social workers sent me to live with Mamaw Holly.

I don’t know how Mamaw managed to rear up a delinquent of such caliber as my daddy. She was a hardworking woman, and as much as time and circumstances beat her down, Mamaw always clung to her faith. Every Wednesday night and Sunday morning she’d drive herself to church for a weekly double dose of Vitamin God. And naturally, I was dragged along with her. The deck was already stacked against me, she said, I needed to get as much Holy Spirit in me as I could. I mouthed along with the words, nibbled on the crackers, sipped grape juice, even let them dunk my head in a dirty-ass freezing creek on my eighteenth birthday. Mamaw Holly brought me in, showed me what family was supposed to be. I loved that woman, and because of that, I never had the heart to tell her that I thought religion was a crock of shit.

But we did agree on one thing. We both believed that the church was the way to salvation. While Mamaw saw only Jesus’s mercy and goodwill, I noticed that the preacher was the fattest man in town. When she’d drive me to school, listening to the Holy Word on ancient and skipping cassettes, I noticed the fancy house that the preacher got to live in for free. When she dragged me around to different charities all around the county, helping give away food that we could have used ourselves, I noticed that nearly every business and half the homes had been foreclosed.

You know what didn’t get foreclosed on? Churches. Eight churches in the county and not one had to close shop. The mountains may have been dying, but for the churches, buddy, business was booming.

Job security, that’s what drove me to the ministry. A salary that the federal and state government couldn’t touch. A home bought and paid for the parishioners. And what did I have to do for all that? Say some pretty words once a week. Oh, sure, there was more to it than that, nothing is as easy as it looks. A town may kick out a lazy minister, but there’s always plenty of work for someone to spread the word of God. Which is what brought me to the town of Sacred Hollow, where I try to get by doing as little work as possible.

Sacred Hollow House of Worship is my first assignment, and I have to admit, it’s not as glamorous as I had hoped. It’s been standing for over eighty years, but now it does so with a limp. The building is starting to sag on one side, most of the paint has chipped and peeled, and the roof needs to be replaced. Unfortunately, it didn’t come with a house, but I do get a living space and an office within the church. And thanks to a rural assistance program through my divinity school, all I have to do is stick around for a few years and they’ll take care of the loans I racked up while attending.

The hardest part to get used to is that the church is surrounded by the town’s graveyard. I like to think I don’t frighten easy, and the graveyard isn’t too spooky during the light of day. At night though, especially on a full moon like now, with the light reflecting off the tombstones and shining through my bedroom window, all I can think about is every horror movie I’ve ever seen. They blend together with the first funeral I performed a couple of weeks ago.

Abraham Hall had been one of the oldest members in town and a faithful follower who always sat at the front pew. He had also been a near-constant pain in my ass. After service, he would speak to me about the state of the graveyard and how some flowers would really liven up the place. (Trying to liven up a place filled with dead people, you see the kind of shit I have to put up with?) I smiled and repeated the same answer, that that was really more of the family’s department, that the church coffers were bare and couldn’t be spared. Not if I was ever going to get a TV in my living quarters.

“Mark,” He had said last time I saw him. I had insisted that all the parishioners call me by my first name. It made things more personal, and you’re more likely to drop cash in the collection basket for someone you know rather than an authority figure. “You’re not married. You don’t have any children. You’re like me, all you have is God. Wouldn’t you want someone to leave flowers on your grave?”

What the hell would I care? I’d be dead. Only I couldn’t say that and keep my post, so I just smiled sadly and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll see what I can do, Abe.”

The same conversation, one way or another, sometimes for as long as an hour after service. Every. Fucking. Sunday. Until Abe Hall’s eighty-year-old heart finally kicked out on him. I may not be religious, but thank God for that.

When someone like Abraham Hall dies, someone who has been coming to the church since back when the paint was new, you’ve got to put on a show. I sang the usual praises of how he’s in a better place and how Sacred Hollow won’t be the same without him, but he wasn’t really gone, and how we’d always have him in our hearts. You know, Hallmark shit like that. But then I went and put my hand over his like I was saying bye to my best friend, and that cold, that shocking cold just went right through me. They don’t prepare you for that in divinity school.

I sit up in bed, feeling that cold all over me, the pale moonlight draping over me. Shaking my head, I pull off the worthless covers and pick up my laptop leftover from college. Its age is starting to show, but luckily you don’t need much to watch Netflix. I creep into my office across the hall from my room and turn on the light. Leaning back in my cheap but cozy chair, I unlock the desk and pull out the bag of cheap brown weed I bought from a dealer two town’s over. Nothing like some cheap bud and cartoons to calm you down on a spooky night.

While the video buffers, I roll a joint and spark it. It’s like smoking a dying cactus, the smoke goes in hard and rough, like a dead rose that still has its thorns. It draws a cough even from my experienced lungs. The heat from it lingers though, sinking into my bones, putting the thoughts of Abe Hall’s cold dead hands to the back of my mind for a moment.

Netflix doesn’t load, just gives me the red circle of death and then a network error. Taking another drag, I click on the mouse pad only to get the same message. Network error.

“Shit.”

Sacred Hollow is deep in Appalachia. Its rolling valleys are surrounded by mountains of trees and empty coal mines. Wi-fi and cell phone signals get battered aside by the mountains unless you have some type of extender. The House of Worship is the worst place in town to keep a signal, the graveyard having been built on one of the only flat tracks of land in the whole county. Our extender stands at the top of the hill that slopes up from the cemetery, pointing toward the tower that you can see blinking red from the top of the mountain. Usually, it’s easy enough to fix, but it involves a trip to the sexton’s shack.

“Shit.”

Jerry Wood, the House’s sexton, is scarier than the goddamned cemetery. I didn’t even know anyone still used a sexton until I came to Sacred Hollow. It’s an old word which roughly means a church’s handyman and grave digger. I’ve only spoken to Jerry a couple of times since taking my post, and he’s not a talkative sort. Closer to seven feet tall than six, broad-shouldered, and one of those faces from a hard life that makes it impossible to tell his age. From the church record’s though, he’s been here almost forty years.

I’ve got everyone else fooled. Churchgoers can usually be stacked into two categories, the faithful and the uncaring. The faithful want to believe the best in their preacher so they hang onto my sermons, certain that there’s nothing going on behind the front I put out for them. The uncaring are the ones dragged there, and they’re so bored they don’t pay any attention. Jerry doesn’t strike me as faithful, but when we meet, I can feel his eyes bearing into me, sizing me up as if waiting for me to screw up. I avoid him as much as possible, and so far, he seems content to return the favor. It seems to be working out for both of us, even if the church could use some more shingles and a fresh coat of paint.

The joint is halfway gone, and I stare at the circle again. Marijuana can only do so much to make a circle interesting, and my buzzing brain begs me for something to stimulate it. I take one more long drag then dab the joint out carefully in the ashtray, saving the rest for later. Pulling on a coat and scarf, and filled with stoner’s courage, I step outside into the cold night.

The moonlight coats everything in white light. Instead of the ominous shadows that invaded my bedroom, the weed transforms the reflecting tombstones into glittering stage lights lighting my path up to the small shack. Maybe the bud is better than I thought. Or maybe the toothless hick who sold it to me had coated it with something stronger. The cold begins to creep in again, and I wish I had brought the rest of my joint when my foot catches something and I stumble to the ground.

It takes me a couple of seconds to pull myself upright. The weed has slowed my movements, but it also dulls the pain on my forehead. There’s a faint itching just above my eye, and I brush my hand against it. My blood glistens in the moonlight. Standing, I see the dirty covered rock I tripped over, and that I had been lucky that was all I had tripped over. The ground in front of the tombstone is a jagged open wound, not the compact hole Jerry had filled in two weeks ago.

The coffin at the bottom looks like it exploded. Pieces of high-priced wood have been broken into splinters and stakes. The cloth and the pillow inside are in similar states, torn at the seams like we had buried some rabid dog alive and it had fought and dug its way out. Only there’s no body. I look at the tombstone, but somehow, I already know. Abraham Hall is missing.

To Be Continued…

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