A Death of Stone

As promised, the response to the 24-hour story challenge from New Year’s Eve.  I began writing at 10 pm, stopped at 1:45 am, and have made several finishing touches since.  I’m pleased with it.  I managed to incorporate some new techniques (which will be featured in upcoming blog posts), and I think the story works.  I look forward to seeing your thoughts, so critiques welcome.  Thanks for joining me.


A date in a haunted cathedral is not as fun as it sounds.  I still think someone should have told me that sooner.

Considering the date alone, nothing could be better.  Julie Brennan was the one girl who had recognized my clay statuette of Hades and matched it with a slavering Cerberus (no one else from the Greek mythos deserved Hades’ affection quite as much, she claimed).   Sculpture and mythology would have been enough for me, but then she had to go and be pretty.  Some people are like that.

As for the cathedral, neither of us could complain.  I liked the doors best.  From the entryway to the alcoves to the little door behind the altar where one could potentially access the bowels of the pipe organ— each one, no matter how tiny or hidden, held crenellations and statues to satisfy the greatest of admirers.  I sometimes imagined some tiny person, shrunk by the cathedral’s magic, crawling their whole life and never seeing the end of one of those crevices.  I pitied that depressed little cathedral-man.  But, someone had to be that guy, and I’m glad I got to stick with Julie.

But the haunted part…  Okay, it’s not really haunted.  The cathedral does things, and I can’t figure out if it’s supernatural because it’s holy or supernatural because it failed its How-To-Resist-Weird-Stuff class.  In any case, it seems less religious than most churches I’ve seen.  Most of that comes from its tendency to resurrect gargoyles.

Yes, I knew this before I brought Julie.

We stood side by side between the weary pillars of the nave.  In front of us, an army of the cathedral’s creations stood, badly proportioned and granite.  Behind us, the metal-rimmed wooden doors shuddered as the priest locked them from outside.  He hadn’t meant to lock us in— we had slipped into one of the back pews before he had gone.  I had done it many times before.

“Is this a prank or something?” asked Julie.  “Did the priest do this?”  The gargoyles were still, as if lifeless.  Usually they were much livelier.

“No prank,” I said.

Julie looked over her shoulder and squeaked.  “They’re behind us too.  The priest just— how did he not see them?”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “These are my friends.”

She blinked at me.  “Your friends?”

I stepped forward.  “It’s okay, everyone.  I brought a friend.  She’s like me.”

Grond raised an eyebrow.  Tall and winged, he impressed people with his long, angled face even as a statue.  And unlike many of his friends, he enjoyed the attention.  “If you think she’s like you, I think we need to have a long conversation about biology.”

“Oh god.  Oh godohgod.”  Julie’s eyes were wide, her hand pressed to her mouth.  “What’s it doing?”

I am speaking,” Grond replied.  He bowed to her, stretching out his wings to either side.  Viter, Grond’s aide and makeup artist, had to duck to avoid them, pressing his belly to the dusty floorstones to keep from destroying his own work.  “Welcome to our home.”

Julie turned in a slow circle, knuckles pressed to her chin as if to keep her teeth from chattering.  She took in all of them.  Eyepatch, so-called because of his knack for getting pigeon guano in his left eye; Amest, the cheese connoisseur, despite her inability to swallow; Just-Add-Water, who managed to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.  I named him that, and he seemed proud of the name— at least, I think that’s what the weeping meant.

Julie completed her circle, eyes landing on me again.  She blinked, seeming to realize I wasn’t a gargoyle, but also that I wasn’t quite normal, either.  Perhaps this wasn’t the best place to take her.  But after the movies and the deep-dish pizza parlor, this seemed like the only thrilling, adventurous place left.

“Sorry,” I said.

She bolted.  First she ran for the door, tugging at the handle, but it was locked from the outside.  She pounded on it.  No one answered— the priest was gone.  She whirled, catching sight of me again, and ran for the balcony stairs, hidden in the shadows to one side of the door.  I heard her footsteps echoing between her choking sobs.

“Thanks, Grond.”

“I don’t understand— I was magnificent.  Viter brushed my wings earlier.”  Grond gave a sniff to his under-wing as Viter sniffed the other side.

Just-Add-Water burst into tears.

***

I found Julie sitting on a windowsill, in a hidden balcony high above the pipe organ.  It had taken me months to find it when Eyepatch and the others decided to play hide-and-seek.

“My family comes here for mass,” said Julie.  The windowsill was wide enough for her, but she still huddled close to the glass, forehead pressed against it.  All was dark outside the cathedral, or she would have looked a lovely shade of blue.  “I’ve seen those… things every time I come.  I admire their sculpting, the time the artist must have spent on them, and what a pity it is that weather keeps destroying them.  Except they can come inside whenever they want.”  She looked at me.  “How long have you known?”  She didn’t look rational— if she was rational, she would have still been screaming.

“I got locked inside once,” I said quietly.  “A friend told me the holy water had magic powers if you got it after dark, except that the priest locked the doors before I could leave.  I was afraid to shout for help, so I slept on a pew, and Grond found me.  He’s the big one with wings.”

“The glorious one with magnificent wings,” said a voice from the shadows.

“Grond, buzz off,” I snapped.  Something flapped away into the darkness.  Moments later, the pipe organ played a rude noise.

“Why do they exist?” asked Julie.  “Stone can’t live.”

“Something about the cathedral, I think,” I said.  “I haven’t looked into it at other places, but I don’t think it’s too common.”

Julie’s laugh was frozen, falling out and lying there.  “I think someone would have noticed.  God, it’s cold.”  It didn’t sound like a statement of fact as much as a complaint.  Her jacket seemed thin, but outside the night had been balmy.  I couldn’t help myself; I shivered too.

“Listen, I’m sorry for bringing you here.”

“It’s okay, I just…”  She pulled her head away from the window and blinked.  “Talking gargoyles.  Talking— oh, god.  Why would you bring me here?”  She swung her legs off the windowsill and stood.  I stepped back, but stopped against the rail of the balcony.

“No new movies?” I suggested.

She turned away, walking to the window.  “I’m dreaming.  Hallucinating.  Did you drug me?”  She whirled on me and I started, almost falling backward over the railing.

“I didn’t,” I protested.  “I’m sorry, Julie, but these things are real.”

Neither of us had been speaking softly.  We had an audience, climbing up the pipe organ and down the stained-glass windows.  Stone grated as Eyepatch tried to wipe his left eye clean.

“I don’t think my dad warned me quite enough about dating weird guys,” muttered Julie.

***

“I shouldn’t have brought her here,” I said, pacing back and forth in front of the pipe organ.  Julie was still on the balcony— she could be listening, but I didn’t care.  I had already failed enough tonight that anything more might make it better, not worse.

“Probably not,” said Grond.  He sat on the organ bench, facing the wrong way if he was going to play anything.  His wings were stretched out at least fifteen feet from end to end.  Viter stood on the organ, preening for him.  The little gargoyle had a weird enthusiasm for the job that I wasn’t sure Grond even understood.  He expected it, but he didn’t understand it.

“She’s a really great person.  I’ve asked her out a couple times before, and she’s always liked architecture, and sculptures, and legends and stuff— I thought she’d love you.”

“That’s the usual reaction,” said Grond.

“I guess she isn’t ready for something like this,” I said, sighing.

“Who is ever ready?”

I blinked at him.  “I was.  You showed yourselves to me almost immediately that first night.”

“And you spent about three hours screaming once I did,” said Grond.  “But you were also a child then, and children do not remain frightened for long when faced with beauty.”

“I still think you’re stretching the definition, calling it beauty,” I said.

“The point remains,” said Grond.  “You’re trying to introduce this girl to something she’s never seen before— something the world tells her cannot exist.  For a child, unlearning and relearning your knowledge is simple.  She is not much of a child.”

I chewed my lip.  Viter slipped on the organ and accidentally sat on one of the keys, shattering the serenity of the cathedral.  It echoed and died eventually, but in a place like this, sounds lasted longer than old gods.

“If you’re not convinced, I suggest we have that biology talk,” said Grond.

“Okay, okay, she’s not a child,” I said, face flushing.  I hoped Julie hadn’t heard that.  “That explains her reaction, but what do I do about it?  The doors are locked.  We can’t go home until the priest opens up in the morning.”  I rubbed my forehead.  “I really didn’t think this through.”

“Do you want her to go home?”

I shook my head, but shrugged as well.  “I can’t tell.  I wanted her to see all of you, but I think she should.  Go, I mean.  But…”  I sighed.  What could I do?

“I can get her home.”

“There’s a way out?”  I had only ever used the doors, but the cathedral was old.  It could hide any number of crypts or secret tunnels.

“Grond, no,” said Viter.  Hearing him speak against anything Grond said almost shocked me more than Julie’s reaction.  “You’ll harden.  You’ll never make it.”

I can get her home.  As if Grond was the only one who could.  I looked at him again, with his fifteen-foot wingspan, his powerful hind legs, his wide front claws.  He could get her home.

“You won’t make it,” repeated Viter.  He shook his preening brush at Grond.  “You’ll fall out of the sky!”

Grond met my gaze without flinching.  He knew what he was doing.  I swallowed, but nodded.  Julie had made it clear.

“I won’t make it back,” said Grond.  He snapped his wings closed, the bottom tips pressing an ominous chord on the foot pedals of the organ.  “But I can get her home.”

***

We used Divot’s head to break the window.  Because of time constraints and the sheer height of Divot’s placement in the cathedral, the sculptor had never finished carving him, giving him a beautifully proportioned body with a block of stone for a head.  Blind and mute, he nevertheless had the skills necessary to smash through the stained glass and metal frame.  Through the open space, I showed Grond the general direction of Julie’s house, far down the hill from the cathedral.  It would be a long flight.

I apologized to Julie again.  Once she knew it was the only way to get home, she clamped her mouth shut and let Grond wrap his talon-hands around her.  Shrugging his wings loose of Viter, who as a last effort tried to pin them shut, he stepped onto the windowsill.  Julie squeaked as he adjusted his grip.

Then he jumped and was just a black speck in the night, silhouetted once or twice against the lights of the city below.  I could already see his hind legs stiffening as he flew away from the cathedral.

Just-Add-Water wasn’t the only one sobbing, and he certainly wasn’t the loudest.

***

“I think you know what happens now,” said Julie.

I nodded.  Nothing for it.  “It was fun while it lasted.”

“Your gargoyle is still in my front yard.  Everyone thinks we were sculpting all night.”

“Would they believe anything else?”

She smiled, but I could tell she envied them.  Everyone else, that is.

“I think the school will put it in the art room, if I ask,” I said.  That would get it off her lawn, at least— help to erase some of the memories.

“You know,” she said after a while, “I understand why you brought me there.”

“That makes one of us,” I said.

“You wanted to test me,” she continued.  “You liked me, but you weren’t sure, so you wanted to see how I measured up to the people you loved.”

Oh.  “I—”

“It’s okay,” she said, leaning close to me.  “Cerberus was more family to Hades than Persephone ever could be.”

I pressed my knuckles against my lips, trying to hold it in.  “I think the others want to kill me,” I said at last.  “Grond was—”  Grond was everything he always claimed: he was magnificent.  Just, less in stonework and sculpture than in spirit and mind.

“Grond was family,” said Julie softly.  “The family you don’t have anymore.”  Still terribly close to me, she whispered, her breath hot against my ear.  “I think you know what happens now,” she repeated.

I blinked back the tingling in my eyes as she took my hand.

“This time, introduce me before anyone dies.”

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