Changing of the Guard

The church had been built years before of cut grey stone. Now it stood alone at the edge of the clearing. The forest had overgrown the path in and most of the people in town had forgotten about the old place. That was other than one man. He had been the last person hired by the cantankerous old man who owned the place. The job title he had been given was caretaker, but after twenty years, he was more fixture than a worker. 

Joseph stood in the bad doorway, looking down the aisle between the rotting wooden pews. He should have been cleaning, but there was a funny feeling about the place tonight. One he had felt only a handful of times over the forty-plus years he had been there. Something was coming, and it wasn’t bringing flowers.

He stepped just inside the building, closing the door behind him as the wind picked up. He could smell trouble in the air. Trouble and burnt wood. “Crap.”

He set about moving the lanterns into the small alcove at the end of the sanctuary. No need for them to get broken this time. When he was done, he walked back to the back of the church and checked the doors. It was locked, as it should be. Moving back to the heavy front doors, he pulled the bar down to secure it from the storm that was coming. He could hear the wind picking up. It’s whistling through the trees, coming clearly through the classless window openings. 

Joseph lifted the pocket watch out of its special pocket and checked the time. Ten minutes till midnight. That meant twelve minutes until it was over for the year. He listened for the sound of the knocking, praying that this year it wouldn’t come. That this year, the curse would have been lifted and everything would move on finally. 

At two minutes until midnight, those prayers proved to be unanswered as the knocking at the tiny wooden door near the back of the church began. He would have minty seconds to decide both his fate and the fate of the world. This year, he swore it would be different.

Joseph stood and walked away from the door. Nothing was going to make him open it. Nothing in the world would be powerful enough to force him to open that door and allow her sanctuary. He paced to the heavy front doors, counting off the seconds in his mind. At the one-minute mark, he felt himself falter. He walked back to the little door and grinned at the handle. Knowing she was out there and in trouble, there was nothing else he could do. He was a man of God. He had been taught to help those in need. To save those he could and to pray for those he couldn’t save. So when couldn’t he just pray for her and let the world go on?

He sighed and turned the handle. Pushing hard against the wind, he managed to get the door open. She stood there, windblown and looking more than a little scared. Her lips tipped up into a smile as she looked at him. The wind calmed as she spoke, her voice smooth and haunting. “Joseph, did you really think you would be able to not open this door? It’s been twenty years and you haven’t been strong enough yet.” Her eyes sparkled as anger boiled in his.

“One day I won’t be here to open the door,” he said, standing and blocking her way. He may not have the willpower to keep the door closed, but that didn’t mean he had to let her in. He would stand there and block her path for as long as he needed to. She would hurt no one else as long as he was alive.

The smile on her face had him questioning his vow of non-violence, as it did every year. He may have been a man of God, but that didn’t stop him from being human. The human part of him hated her. “By then, I will have found another. I have no fear of ever being denied access to this house of God,” she said.

He felt strength come back into his heart at her words. “So what if you have access? You won’t gain entrance?” He all but spat the words at her. A heartbeat later an arm came from behind him even as the storm raged and yanked the door closed, leaving her standing alone on the outside. 

“You can thank me later. For now, just bar that door. We need to get as far away from it as we can.” A masculine voice said. 

Joseph glanced behind him. The teenager standing there didn’t fit the stern voice that had told him to move. “Who are you?” He asked.

A smile tilted his lips. “Don’t worry about that, old man. Let’s deal with the problem at hand first.” He moved past Joseph and locked the bar over the door. “No need to give her any more access than she’s already had.” He took Joseph by the arm as he reached him, leading him to the far end of the cathedral. 

When they reached the far end of the building, the young man motioned for Joseph to take a seat. The wind was still screaming outside and through the openings in the stone wall. “I know what she is. What I don’t know is how you managed to get tangled up with her. Care to tell me the story?” The young man asked, dropping onto the bench beside the priest.

Joseph looked back toward the door, where he could still hear her. “It was a long time ago, another lifetime nearly. I was in a situation and made the wrong choice.” He lowered his head and his voice. “She’s my punishment.”

The young man leaned back against the back of the bench. “How can a person be a punishment?” He asked.

Joseph spoke, his head still lowered into his hands. “God sent her to punish me for what I did. I was so wrong, but I didn’t know any better at the time.” He knew he wasn’t making sense, but the sounds of her still at the door and the storm outside were making it hard for him to concentrate on what he was saying.

The young man put his hand on Joseph’s back in comfort. At the same moment, the storm stopped and the sound of the woman disappeared. “It’s okay Joseph. Your suffering is at an end. That’s why I’m here.”

Joseph lifted his head. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You can’t help me. She will come back next year and I will open the door,” he said.

The boy’s eyes held a sadness that cut through Joseph. “No, you won’t. It’s my time to take over the battle now. It’s time for you to rest.” 

Joseph sighed, closed his eyes, and for the last time relaxed against the back of the bench. 

The boy stood and faced the altar at the back of the building. “I’ll rebuild this place for him and I will protect his secrets. Know that whatever God it is, that lives here. You won’t beat me as easy as you did my father.”

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