Paul pushed open the glass doors, exiting the building onto the angular concrete steps. The evening had a chilly edge, but was dry and still, darkness beginning to settle in the clear sky. Warm light illuminated the interior of the church building, groups of people visible within, chatting amiably and drinking cups of tea and coffee. Paul stood on the steps, looking down onto the street that passed by in front of the church.
Why did it feel so pointless? He'd been doing this ever since he was a kid, but now it just seemed like empty words and meaningless actions. Where was the blind belief he'd professed as a five-year-old? He turned back and looked at the people within the building. It meant something to all of them. He just felt hollow, wishing he had the guts to stand up to his parents, to say he wasn't going anymore. An even bigger part of him, a gnawing emptiness within, just wanted to know the truth.
“God,” he began quietly, his words resonant against the hushed atmosphere of his surroundings. “If this is real, if you are real, then show me. Not in words or pictures, actually show me. Or, I don't think I can carry on with this. I don't think I can believe unless...”
Paul stopped. A young man, possibly in his early twenties, was leaning against the railings next to the church's wrought iron gate. He was wearing an immaculate grey pinstripe suit, which seemed to shimmer in the darkness. His jet-black hair was slicked back, giving him the appearance of an eight-ball with a handsome chiselled face. His eyes stared at Paul, who felt like he was being consumed in their gaze. The man smiled, breaking the tension.
“Hey, how's it goin'?”
“Alright I guess.”
Paul walked down the steps, hoping the stranger hadn't overheard him talking earlier.
“I'm off to a party,” the man informed him. “It's 'gangster' themed. You think I look good?”
Paul was about to open the gate and get away from this quite possibly drunk man, when he noticed something in his hand. He walked away from the gate, transfixed by the object. The man smiled from the other side of the railing, the corners of his mouth curving wickedly.
“You want some?” he asked, holding out the greasy hamburger.
Paul looked at the fast-food snack. For some reason he couldn't comprehend, the burger looked like the best item of food he had ever laid eyes upon. His stomach twisted longingly, consumed with hunger. He felt as if all would be right with the world as long as he could sink his teeth into that soft white bread and fill himself with the rich meatiness of the flame-grilled beef within.
His hand reached out.
The stranger's grin widened.
Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
The voice seemed to be simultaneously the softest whisper in Paul's ear and also a clap of thunder. The man's smile faded instantly, replaced by a look of inhuman rage. He threw the hamburger to the ground, stamping on it aggressively. Paul looked down at the trampled object. It didn't look so appetising anymore. He could see bits of green mould on the bun, and the meat wasn't even cooked in places. When he looked back up, the man was smiling again, his teeth perfectly aligned and plastically white.
“Wanna see something cool?”
Paul nodded, intrigued. The man raised his hand high above the his head, then brought it swiftly down onto one of the pointed ridges on the railings, the metal tearing through his hand. Paul jumped back in shock, his colour sucked from his face at the sight of the blood gushing out of the man's hand.
“What are doing? Are you mental?”
The man slowly removed his hand from the raised metal that had skewered it, making Paul feel faint and nauseous.
“Look,” he commanded, holding his palm up to Paul.
The youth studied it incredulously. There wasn't even a mark. The flesh was clear and unharmed.
“You can do that too.”
“Yeah. You're protected. Nothing's gonna happen to you.” The man pointed up into the sky.
“The big guy's got you covered.” He smiled his toothy grin. “Give it a try.”
Paul looked at the metal tips of the railing. Could he?
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
“Oh come on!” shouted the stranger angrily, striding out into the road in frustration. “I nearly had him with that one.”
Paul looked at him with confusion. What on earth was going on? He noticed a blotch on the man's suit trousers. His hand was bleeding, the drops staining the cloth a rich scarlet.
“Hey,” shouted the man, walking back over to the railing. Paul looked at him. His face appeared youthful, but on closer inspection the skin seemed stretched and mottled, the bones of his cheeks a little too sharp, his eyes a little too dark.
“Hey,” the stranger repeated, snapping his fingers in front of Paul's face, causing the youth to jump. The man laughed, a hollow rasping sound.
“What do you want?” asked Paul, his voice quavering nervously.
“What do I want?” the man echoed him, chuckling. “I want to give you everything. I have the power. You want money? I'll give it to you. You want women?” The man laughed again. “What a stupid question. What teenage boy doesn't? Well, they'll be queuing up for you. I can do that. You want respect? Power? I can give you all these things.”
“What's the catch?'
“Catch? There is no catch.”
The man turned away, whistling tunelessly to himself. Paul pondered his words. Money. Power. Satisfaction. Who didn't want these things? The stranger turned back to Paul, smiling his unnerving grin.
“There is one, tiny, insignificant thing you'd have to do for me in return.”
“What is it?”
“I would need you to bow down to me. It's just an ego thing, it wouldn't mean anything really – ”
Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.
This time the words were like a shock-wave slamming into the ground, causing Paul to tremble, fully aware of the terrible power the utterance contained. The man howled in agony, his hands clawing at his ears. He fell down onto the tarmac, writhing in pain. Paul watched as the stranger began rise. Terror gripped him, rooting him to the floor. The man seemed gloriously handsome, but his beauty was at the same time the most horrific thing Paul had ever seen. The angles of his bone structure, the arch of his back, the density of his shining hair. It wasn't human.
“OK, OK,” the stranger said, his voice grinding, his breathing heavy. “I guess you must really want this one.” He looked at Paul, his eyes glinting viciously. “I've got one more thing to show you,” addressing the young boy. He clicked his fingers.
Everything changed. Paul looked about him in panic. The buildings of the street seemed to be crumbling and shifting, but somehow managing to stay standing. The sky had morphed into a dense black shadow, a sunless expanse, the complete absence of light.
Something grabbed at his leg.
Paul turned to see what was clutching at his ankle, his eyes widening with absolute terror.
A creature, a bony humanoid, its bulbous head vacant of features except for a gaping maw, was crawling towards him, its jagged hand scrabbling at him. Paul kicked out at the monster, knocking it away. The creature reeled back, but continued to advance. The youth turned to run but was surrounded by more foul ragged bodies, some shuffling awkwardly towards him, others dragging themselves along the ground, all attracted to him, sightlessly searching for him.
“Get back! Get away!” he screamed, kicking and punching frenziedly.
Cold hands latched onto his limbs, pulling at him, relentless against his strength. He was dragged down, pulled to the ground.
The man watched, grinning hatefully at Paul.
You're hopeless. Lost. A failure. He isn't going to save you this time. It's too much. You're done for.”
Darkness was almost upon him. He could feel the dank fetid breath of rotten mouths upon his skin, could feel razor-sharp teeth preparing to sink into his flesh.
The darkness was nearly complete.
“Save me. Jesus, save me.”
Light. Unadulterated light. A supernova of whiteness. The creatures burst apart, disintegrating into dust, blasted into nothing. The man screamed with rage and was gone, disappearing in a flash of dark energy. Paul felt peace lap over him, the fear instantly replaced by calm. He eyes were closed, but he could sense the light surrounding him like a blanket of pure power. A voice spoke to him, the words falling into his mind without sound.
You are forgiven.
You are clean.
You are a new creation.
In your weakness, you doubted me.
I will turn your weakness into strength.
You asked me to show you...I will allow you to see.
Your sight will glorify me.
Paul awoke with a start, sitting up in bed. He was sweating, breathing heavily. His bedroom was cloaked in darkness, the bluish hues of early morning feeding in through the curtains. He lay back, catching his breath.
What on earth had happened? The man, the creatures, the voice? His mind felt foggy. He seemed to remember coming home, reading for a little while, and then going to bed. Was it all a dream? Something he had made up in his head? The memory of it didn't seem like a dream, but at the same time it didn't feel tangible, like some kind of disturbingly realistic illusion.
He let his body sag back into the covers, rolling over to find a comfortable position. Something did feel different. He felt...encouraged. Regenerated. Like he actually wanted to get up and face the dreary Monday that awaited him in a few hours time. He rolled over again, shrugging off these thoughts. It was just some wacky dream his over-active imagination had conjured up, probably from some comic or film he'd seen. However, as sleep seeped back over him, the words still echoed around his mind – “you asked me to show you...I will allow you to see.”