“Doesn’t this bother you?”
“What?” Truman asked.
The thin silhouette shifted at the shadow’s edge. Truman looked up from where he sat on the asphalt while putting a hand to his brow, trying to block out some of the spotlight’s glare. He still couldn’t make out its face.
“That the only thing keeping me from you is this,” it said, pointing a gnarled finger behind them to the ten-story cross that faced the church parking lot.
Truman didn’t answer. He could hear lips unstick from its pointed teeth as it smiled.
“It is…” the thing began.
“Ironic,” interrupted Truman, steam clouding out his mouth. “Yeah. I know.”
“What are you doing at a church anyway?” it asked, the voice thin and hollow.
Truman buttoned his coat against a winter gust, and got up from the ground, feeling his joints crack in the cold. He tapped the crown of his head, instinctually checking on his yarmulke.
“I got a friend who asks me to explain Hanukkah to an addict recovery Bible study class every year. I’m kind of in recovery, too, so I don’t mind helping. Tonight was the night, this time around.”
“Fortuitous,” it said.
It was already late when Truman had u-turned on the highway and sped back towards the church, hoping to grab a bag he’d forgotten before the building locked up for the evening. The parking lot was empty, but he still walked up to the cavernous foyer’s glass front doors, peering inside in hopes of finding a straggler secretary or janitor. He gave up after a few minutes of calling out and knocking on the entrance, and turned around to see a figure not too far from him, waiting.
“You don’t have a key to this place, do you?” Truman had asked to no answer.
Truman tried ignoring its pained, rattling breath as he walked back to his car, figuring the visitor was some relapse case—a benzo fiend, from the sound of it—who dozed off and forgot to make it to the meeting tonight.
It lunged at him as soon as he stepped outside the monument’s artificial shade. Truman yelped, tripping backwards and landing on the frigid asphalt. He threw his arms over his face, waiting for the knife slash, but after a moment realized the attacker didn’t follow him into the shadow. It stood there again, seemingly waiting for something. Truman scooted backwards on his ass, turned, and made a run in the opposite direction, hoping to maybe lose the stranger in the woods. After only a few steps he felt calloused, numbingly cold hands on his shoulders as he was lifted entirely off the ground and tossed back into the cross outline.
Now, four hours into this hostage situation, Truman started towards the immense cross, taking care to stay in the lane of its artificial shadow generated from rows of carefully angled lamps. The thing followed in step, keeping just far enough into the darkness to stay hidden. The stranger’s strength was startling enough, although Truman knew about scrawny tweakers turning into Goliaths after smoking or snorting the right amount. Still, whoever this was, they weren’t just scrawny— they were inhumanly thin. And then there were the teeth. Not rotted with that decaying yellow stain common to addicts, but precise, delicate, sharp, pearlescent even in the street lamp glow. The explanation beginning to form in Truman’s mind chilled him. He forced himself to continue the conversation, hoping to distract himself from the thought.
“I wrote a letter to the city council about that eyesore,” he said. “Told ‘em the cross violated town height limits. I can see it from my damn backyard. Spent all day at the public library researching statutes just to make sure,” said Truman. “Mayor sent back a handwritten note, telling me she understood my ‘particular’ concern, but that the council voted to make a special amendment for the church.”
He stopped, and so did his follower.
“And you know the fuck of it all?” Truman asked. “I did a little more research. Every city council member is in those pews each Sunday morning. How’s that for fucking fortuitous?”
“You never answered my question,” it rasped.
“What?” asked Truman.
“Doesn’t this bother you? Being saved by the cross?”
Truman looked at the gigantic monument. Pinewood supports anchored it on every side.
“When I was twelve, I went to see the homecoming football game with some other kids. I bought a slice of pizza at the concession stand with money my parents gave me. We were tight on money then, tight like we always were, but they wanted me to have a good time. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Someone in the group asked to halve it with me, and when I said no, he said, ‘You’re such a stingy Jew.’”
He turned to the silhouette nearby.
“He’s the youth pastor here now,” he said.
“Children can be very cruel. But he isn’t a child anymore,” it said.
“I always remind myself of that when I see him around town. I bet he doesn’t even remember saying that to me. Probably would feel terrible about it.”
“Probably,” it said.
“A fair share of others in this town wouldn’t, though.”
Truman cupped his hands in front of his mouth, exhaled into them, and looked towards a sprawling nativity scene set up to their right. The thing licked its lips.
“So you’ll get hurt if you touch a cross?” Truman asked.
“Or step into a shadow made by one.”
“How?” Truman said.
“Shit. If you burn because of it, then I must’ve been smoldering my whole life. I don’t know how you’re even allowed to step foot in Thief, Mississippi. That thing is everywhere,” Truman said, pointing up at the cross.
“It’s a bit more literal for me than it is for you.”
“I guess,” Truman told it. “If you’re what I think you are, then you probably know already there’s no fucking way I’m leaving here until sunrise,” Truman told it, taking a seat on the curb leading up to the cross and closing his eyes.
“Why do you stay here? In this town? It sounds like you don’t think highly of it. You could go anywhere. There are places where no one thinks twice about what you are, places where there are more of you than them.”
Truman sat up again.
“Because it’s home, right?” said Truman.
“Are you asking me?”
“No, I guess not. It’s home. A lot of people here are good people, of course. It’s not like everyone’s stashing white hoods in their closets. But shit, man. They’re good at hurting you, whether they mean it or not. I’m comfortable being uncomfortable by this point, does that make sense?” Truman said. “It’s all I’m familiar with. I think if I went anywhere outside of Thief, Mississippi, I wouldn’t know what to do myself. I’d feel even more alone.”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be alone until you lose everything. Believe me,” it said.
“Loneliness ain’t a pissing contest,” Truman said.
“Sure, but there comes a point where you’re just doing this to yourself. No one likes a martyr.”
“They do,” said Truman, nodding his head backwards at the church. It didn’t laugh like Truman half-hoped it would, and he pulled the coat tighter around him. “It’s not freezing out here to you?” he asked.
“It’s not anything to me,” it said.
The thing walked to the edge of the shadow, its foot briefly overstepping the line before withdrawing quickly, a small whiff of acrid smoke dissipating into the air.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s sad. But so is refusing to make peace with way things are,” it said.
Truman noticed that light seemed to avoid the figure altogether except for pinpoints of brightness reflecting from within the deep sockets of its eyes.
“So should I walk into the church sanctuary tomorrow and demand a baptism?” Truman said, surprised by the volume in his voice. “Maybe that youth pastor could even do it. If all this possesses this kind of power,” he said, pointing towards the source of the shadow, “what does that mean for everything else? For us? Is this how the world really works?”
“I don’t know,” it said, quieter.
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘You don’t know?’ No offense, but there’s an active cruelty to everything if the world can create something like you. How is any of that fair? Why chose to be a part of it?” said Truman, rising to his feet.
“You can try to separate yourself from it all, I suppose. I just know that the loneliness eats you away if you live with it long enough. I suspect you know that, too, by now.”
“I’m not leaving ‘til sunrise,” said Truman.
“You’re a real pain in the ass.” Truman laid down and tried to adjust himself on the ground as comfortably as he could, rolling onto one side, resting an arm under his head. “So you’re old?”
“Been around for a long time?” asked Truman.
“Like, longer than should be possible?”
“That’s what I once thought, at least.”
“What’s the earliest thing you remember?” Truman asked.
“Faces,” it said.
“Two small ones, I think. I forget their names. I’ve forgotten most names. I don’t remember who they were to me, but I like the echo of trying to remember. I can’t fully recall their faces, either, but I remember they were beautiful and bright, like trying to stare at the sun. I first felt that loneliness when their faces left me.”
“Then what happened to them?”
It didn’t answer.
Truman nodded to himself. He tried to sleep, but the shivering kept him from any real rest. He sat up a couple of hours later, rubbed at his eyes, and looked for the visitor. It stood in the same spot as it had since he last saw it.
“There’s a whole town out there. None of them could put up a fight, so long as they don’t sleep under a neon cross or something,” he said.
“I know,” it said.
“We’re not kindred spirits, or some shit. Name me one person who won’t understand the meaning of fundamental loneliness by the time they reach their death bed. Ripping me apart if I try leaving doesn’t exactly make me a willing shoulder to lean on, man.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Fuck.” He rolled back over, and tried to sleep again.
Truman came to sometime later as a sparrow chirped, flying from the church eaves towards the trees. He followed its path, looking as it disappeared into the grove bordering the parking lot. The sky was beginning to purple through the spaces between the pines.
“You should probably start moving, if you want to beat the sun,” he said.
“I never said I wanted to beat it. I just wanted someone to be here when it happened.” It paused, watching another bird sail in the direction of the first. “What was it you said? The meaning of fundamental loneliness.”
“Oh,” said Truman, sitting up again. “Oh. Shit.”
They watched the sky brighten together. The air filled with a searing hiss, like steam beginning to escape a kettle. Suddenly, the thing let out an agonizing howl.
“C’mon, man. You don’t have to do this,” Truman tried.
“You never really answered me,” it rasped.
“What?” Truman said.
“Doesn’t it bother you? The cross having all that power over you? You never answered me, but that’s alright,” it said. “I know it bothered me.”
The first rays of sunlight struck the figure, igniting it before Truman could truly get a good look. The fire was too bright to stare at directly, and he shielded his eyes as he walked back a couple steps from the sudden heat. Then Truman stood there, the night’s shivering ebbing away while a twinge of guilt pulsed in his chest as he warmed in front the dying pyre. After a few moments the figure began eroding into itself, toppling into a heap on the asphalt, and the cold closed in again.
Truman watched for a while as a morning breeze began carrying off flakes from the pile of oily ash towards the woods. He walked to the cross, staring at its summit as the light-sensitive lanterns switched off for the day. Placing a hand against the lacquered wood, he felt a thin layer of dawn frost melt against his palm. He leaned into it, trying to loosen the pinewood supports until his shoulder began to bruise.