Church Fire

By Dave Gregory

Locals blame Anita Washington for the church fire, though she didn’t set it. She was sixty-two at the time and the only job she’d ever had was sweeping St. Florian’s polished, wooden floors and cooking meals in the rectory, a job she proudly inherited from her grandmother.

The morning after the blaze, a photograph of Anita crying, her dark face illuminated by firelight, appeared on the front page of the Gazette. The community grieved with her, until a subsequent article revealed she’d accidentally left the side entrance unlocked, on the night before Halloween.

Anita dutifully fastened that door every evening for decades. No one understood how she could have left the church vulnerable and exposed to the likes of Brandon Turner and Cody Leafe, two rebellious teens who were expected to get into mischief on Devil’s Night.

With his mother dead and father on the road, Brandon shared a grimy apartment with an oblivious grandmother. He once broke eight shop windows on Main Street using his dad’s golf clubs.

Cody was the kid with the peanut allergy – couldn’t be in the same room as half a nut without dying. His condition altered the rules regarding bake sales and Halloween candy for a generation. People resented the inconvenience and treated his frailty with suspicion.

The boys began that night separately. Each stole a bar of soap and spent an hour writing curse words on windows.

They approached the Mayor’s Cadillac at the same time. After Brandon wrote a string of four-letter words on the windshield, and Cody scrawled a rude command on the rear-view window, they agreed the stained glass of St. Florian’s presented a better target. Older than the town, the church sat on the hill above the main square. The bell tower’s hourly peel reached every household, half the adult population got married within its walls, and several town founders lay buried behind the church, alongside everyone’s grandparents and great-grandparents. Defacing the nearly two-hundred-year-old, white clapboard structure meant attacking the entire community.

Brandon found an unlocked door and Cody located tiny candles. Brandon carried matches and Cody thought blackening the toes of a wooden statue would be funny.

Three blocks away, Anita bolted upright, unaware what had awakened her. She grabbed her coat from its hook, donned her most dependable shoes, and rushed from her tiny room above the pharmacy. She headed uphill, along the deserted street, toward St. Florian’s.

A light burned inside. Anyone else might’ve thought a service was underway but Anita knew the light wasn’t electric and didn’t belong there. It was sinister and unholy. And altogether too bright. It came from the side altar, near the sacristy, where statues of St. Joseph and St. Florian stood on a ledge, seventy-five votive candles at their feet – candles Anita extinguished before departing, hours earlier.

As Anita raced up the stone steps to the church, she smelled smoke. The same mysterious force that awakened her, guided her toward the sacristy entrance, on the building’s right side. The narrow door burst open, two boys rushed out, coughing and gasping, eyes bulging with fear.

Sirens pierced the night. Someone downwind of the blaze had already alerted authorities.

Anita ran through the cabinet-filled sacristy and opened the door to the nave. A wall of flame greeted her. She discharged the closest fire extinguisher while saying a prayer. Neither had any effect. Other extinguishers were on the far side of the chancel and in the vestibule, but fire blocked her access. She’d have to use the main entrance.

Anita fumbled for the key on her way to the front door, but firefighters prevented her re-entry. It made no difference. The steeple was already aflame.

In the following days, Anita identified Brandon and Cody. They were sent to juvenile detention, for a time. Both boys claimed to be sorry but Anita – who prayed at the church ruins until the rubble was cleared away – saw them one winter evening, pitching snowballs at the remaining stained glass, laughing as it shattered.

Fifteen years later, the hilltop remains the town’s primary wedding location, but a large hotel and convention centre now occupy the spot. The graves were moved to a new cemetery, outside town, where a larger, emptier church was built.

Brandon went to college but returned after a year and lives above Hagar’s bar, across from the pharmacy. He works in hotel maintenance. Cody stayed in town and joined his father’s landscaping business. The hotel is their biggest client.

Anita still lives above the pharmacy. She seldom goes out but is known as “the woman who left the door open,” even though few miss the historic church. She’s sometimes spotted at her window, facing south toward the river. She avoids looking across Main Street, into Brandon’s dingy apartment, or north, to the hotel on the hill.

Her faith crumbled in the aftermath of the fire. Most townsfolk suffered a similar loss, yet the old woman never stopped feeling guilty about the unlocked door. She’s pulled her hair out, burned her fingers on the gas stove, and cracked shower tiles with her forehead. But when she thinks of that night, her deepest wish is not that she’d secured the door but that she could’ve arrived seconds earlier, before Brandon and Cody escaped.

It soothes the formerly peaceful and loving woman to imagine wedging a chair beneath the knob of the inner door, the one from knave to sacristy, and bracing it with her body. The boys pound and wail as their flesh burns. Anita realizes the horrific screams are not only from Brandon and Cody, but from St. Joseph and St. Florian, who burn alongside them – and from God, who also perishes in the flames.