My ex-girlfriend invited me to her family’s church once… it wasn’t a church

So just to preface, I’ll fill you in on a little bit of background information: this happened to me the summer after I graduated from high school. I was seventeen at the time (I’m one of those people born in late July who graduated before turning eighteen). And I’d been spending a lot of time at a local karaoke cafe. You know, one of those places where people get drunk before going up on stage with a group of friends and belting “Take on Me” or some shit at the top of their lungs. It was kind of a tacky place: it used to be this little Mom and Pops’ Philly cheesesteak restaurant but had recently been bought out, refurbished, and installed with a pretty extensive sound system. But the new owners didn’t bother to get new flooring or deep clean the walls, and it usually smelled pretty bad in there.

I wouldn’t have spent as much time there as I did, but I met someone who made me feel like I wanted to be there: the first time I saw her, I was sitting alone at the back of the restaurant. They had a couple rows of fold up chairs for anyone who wanted to be there exclusively for the music as long as they were willing to pay a little entrance fee. I was perfectly fine with that because the food kind of sucked and I was just there to pass time, since there really wasn’t much of anything else to do in my town.

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It didn’t take long before I noticed this girl sitting at one of the round tables with a group of her friends. She had long blonde hair: it was full and voluptuous albeit a little frizzy. It looked like she’d probably been out driving with the windows rolled down or maybe working out. She had bangs too. I didn’t know too many girls with bangs.

Her friends looked like many of the other girls in my town, though: I could see that one of them was wearing a tee shirt that said “Simmer” on it, which was the name of a youth retreat that one of the local churches went on every summer. And some of the others were dressed rather prudishly with long cotton skirts and the classic church girl cardigan. Not that I had any problem with these kinds of girls, but they didn’t typically gravitate towards me due to my sexuality.

That’s why it was so surprising when the blonde girl with bangs came over and sat right next to me after her friends had gone to the bathroom. And it wasn’t with a look of judgment or concern. If anything, it was a look of intrigue and maybe even something more.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey.”

“My name’s Ashlynn. What’s yours?”

“Samantha.”

“Cool.” She folded her arms around her knees and fixed her eyes on the people dancing around on stage. Then she giggled and turned her body around to face me. “You’re gay aren’t you?”

My whole face turned red. I didn’t know what to say. Was she asking so she could tell me I was living in sin? Or maybe use this as an opportunity to invite me to church? I wasn’t sure, but I wasn’t a fan of lying.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

“I figured as much,” she teased. This is the part where I was expecting her to hand me an “ABC’s of Salvation” pamphlet or strike up a conversation about why homosexuality is wrong. But her eyes suddenly grew wide and she held her head down low. “Me too.”

I felt my heart skip a beat.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah. But I’ve been too scared to tell anyone. My parents would kill me. They think it’s wrong. So do my friends. And I guess I just think, well, what’s the use? Maybe I should just keep it under wraps.”

I really didn’t know what to say. This was the last thing I was expecting. I felt bad for her, of course. I’d been lucky enough to have parents who were very supportive of both me and my sexuality, but very few people living in that area were so fortunate.

“I’m sorry. That’s really hard.”

“Yeah. But c’est la vie. Sorry, I know this is awkward. I don’t even know you, after all. But I guess I… I guess I just wanted someone to know.”

“Anyone would. It’s okay.”

“Thanks.” When her friends came out of the bathroom, she leapt to her feet, probably because she didn’t want them to see her sitting next to me. “Well, I guess I’m heading out,” she whispered very discreetly. “But I guess I’ll see you around?”

“Anytime.”

And then, as her sad eyes turned spunky again, she blended seamlessly back into that swarm of church girls as if she’d never left their sight.

I don’t know what it was about her, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Ashlynn all night. She was just such an anomaly. An absolutely gorgeous and stunning girl who took initiative, was extremely friendly, who seemed smart and thoughtful, and who just so happened to be a lesbian and also probably a Christian? All in my little country town too. Forget anomaly, she was basically a unicorn. “I’ve got to get to know her,” I thought. Where else was I going to find someone like her?

So the very next day, I went back to the karaoke cafe and, sure enough, she was there. But alone this time. Damn, I was so excited. Just to be able to talk to her and get to know her better.

She was sitting on a barstool with the widest grin imaginable, almost as though she was expecting me. I was pretty nervous, but I worked up the courage to take a seat next to her.

“Hey, Samantha,” she beamed. “I thought I might find you here tonight. What are you up to?”

“Well, to be honest, I was actually hoping to be able to see you again.” Yeah, I know, not the smoothest. But I was young and had never really gotten the opportunity to talk to another girl in a romantic context like this. And I was pretty shy.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

She swiveled her stool to face the other direction for a moment, and her face got pretty red. She seemed really happy that I was there, and I was obviously just over the moon about that. Everything seemed to be going pretty well. I offered to buy her drinks (virgin, obviously, we were both underaged) and we spent the rest of the night talking.

“So what’s your story?” she asked.

“My story?”

“Yeah. Like where are you from, what are you hoping to accomplish before you die?”

“Well, I’ve lived here pretty much all my life. My dad is an electrician, and my mom does real estate. I just graduated about a month ago and I got accepted into UGA but, uh, I’ll be honest. I’m not really entirely sure what I want to do with my life.”

“I TOTALLY get that,” she nearly choked on her virgin Bloody Mary trying to get the words out. “I’ve been accepted to Carson-Newman, but I’m so stuck about like what exactly I want to major in. I’ve been pretty good at math my whole life, but like, what does that mean job-wise? Accounting? Physics? I just feel like I can’t do much with that.”

“You’ll probably have an easier time finding a job than me. Literally the only thing I’m even remotely good at is history, but I hate working with kids and don’t want to be a teacher. So what does that make me? A historian?”

“Maybe you can be one of those dudes who talks about aliens and crop circles on the history channel.”

I nearly spit out my drink.

Wow, she had a sense of humor too. Unbelievable.

“Yeah, maybe.”

Four hours passed between then and when I finally got in my car to leave, but you could have told me it was four minutes and I probably would have believed you. She told me a little more about herself. She moved here about six months ago, which is probably why I’d never seen her before. She said she was very into her faith, but that she often felt conflicted because of her sexual identity, which she believed to be morally wrong despite being something she couldn’t help. I felt terrible for her. As she explained it, the inner turmoil was written all over her face.

“I just don’t know what to do sometimes. Like, I know it’s wrong but I… I can’t help it.”

“Well, maybe it isn’t so wrong,” I said. I was trying to walk the thin line between advice and demand. I didn’t want to offend her, but man, I didn’t want to see her going on like this. “I’ve never felt it was wrong. I’m actually really happy with myself. I bet, if you learned to look at all this in a new way, you could be happy with yourself too.”

“Maybe,” she said, although she didn’t seem to believe it at all. “Hey, you wanna get some air?”

“Yeah, sure!”

I paid, and we went outside and fiddled around on the gravel for a while. The sky was so clear that night. There wasn’t a trace of streetlight or fog anywhere, and all the stars were so visible. The moon was big and round, and more yellow than I think I’d ever seen it before.

“The sky is so beautiful tonight.”

“Yeah, it is,” I said. But I wasn’t even paying attention to the sky. I couldn’t stop looking at Ashlynn. The little blue sweater she was in, the way the moonlight shone in that beautiful blonde hair, lighting it up?

I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

“Samantha?”

“Yeah?”

“I wanted to thank you for listening to me tonight. And for making me feel safe and comfortable to talk about everything I’ve been going through. You have no idea how much that means to me.”

“No, Ashlynn, thank you,” I replied, “for being so strong and courageous and for entrusting me with all of this. I know how hard it’s been for you. But I want you to know that I’m here for you. If you ever want to talk, if you need to get something off your chest, I’m here.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. I am.”

“Cool,” she said with a crack in her voice as if having some kind of epiphany.

I was having an epiphany too. I realized that I didn’t want Ashlynn to leave the restaurant that night without knowing how I felt about her. I know, it was so sudden, so short notice. I could’ve waited the next day to tell her, or the next day, but I almost felt like I couldn’t wait. The feelings were too strong. She made me want to combust. To tell her every sweet and gentle word imaginable and show her just how she made me feel.

“Ashlynn?” I stuttered. My voice was shaking so bad, and I was really struggling just to get the words out.

“Yes?” She tilted her head, her eyes wide and her mouth agape. It almost seemed like she already knew what I was about to say.

“I know we’ve only known each other for a couple days. And I know that you’re still not really sure about the whole ‘acting on your desires’ thing. But I just want you to know that”-

That I liked her and thought we should hang out sometime? I could have put it like that, but I didn’t.

“That I don’t want to live my life a second longer without you being a part of it. I know, it’s crazy. We just met, and we’ll both be going away to school soon. But Ashlynn, you are so exceptionally special. I’ve never met anyone like you, and I don’t know if I ever will again. You’re so beautiful. Just absolutely stunning. And you’re sweet, and intelligent, and witty, and everything you say is so captivating and profound. To not tell you how I feel and let you slip away without knowing would be the biggest mistake I could ever make. So what do you say?”

She didn’t say anything. She just stood there with a blank expression. Then she took a few strides closer to me. I was expecting maybe a slap in the face or a rejection.

She held my face in her hands and kissed me on the mouth.

And thus began our time together. And let me tell you, those were the happiest two months of my entire life. It was pure bliss. She was so wonderful. Like, I can’t even put it into words. We spent nearly every day together fishing down by the lake, going out to see movies, driving all over town at night, and just shooting the shit (we abandoned that karaoke cafe pretty early on). And for the first two quarters of that time we never really had any problems. Our personalities meshed so well together, and it seemed to me like she was getting over her hang ups.

But then it would happen, usually while we were making out or something, that she would stop and stare off into space with a certain look that can only be described as petrified. The thing is though, she didn’t look particularly guilty about what we were doing. Just scared.

“Is everything alright?” I would ask.

Then she would stare straight into my eyes. Her lips would quiver as though she wanted to tell me something, but then she would say something totally different.

“We shouldn’t be doing this.”

“What?”

“This. We shouldn’t be doing any of any of it.”

“Okay,” I would say. It was tough because every time she would say things like this, I panicked a little on the inside, fearing she was going to break things off, and I would have been devastated if that happened. But I understood that she was under a lot of pressure and was still getting used to all this. So I suggested we take things a bit more slowly. Maybe then she wouldn’t feel so bad.

She agreed.

Things got a little better for a while, although it was pretty clear to me that her conscience was not any more at ease than it was before. She was just hiding the way she felt so I wouldn’t notice. But I was always wondering in the back of my mind what exactly she was thinking, and what it was she wanted to tell me.

I’m a pretty perceptive person, but it even took me a while to notice that she started getting these tiny, almost non-existent sores on her arms. And I mean all over. They blended in with her skin well enough, but were perfectly round with tiny black dots in the middle. At first, I assumed maybe it was just acne or something. But she started getting more and more. I’d had acne before back in freshman year, and I knew it probably wasn’t supposed to look like this.

“Hey Babe? I’m sorry if this is a little personal, and you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but I was just wondering where you think all these little sores are coming from?”

“What sores?” she said. Now this kind of raised some flags for me. They were getting pretty obvious at this point, and there’s no way she didn’t notice them. Maybe she was just too embarrassed to acknowledge them.

“These little ones on your arm,” I interlaced my hand with her’s and pulled her arm out in front of her so she could look. “See?”

Her eyes were watering up, and she clenched her lips together as if stopping herself from saying something.

“Do they itch or are they sore?”

“No.”

“Well, do you think maybe you should go see a doctor about them?”

“No.” She yanked her arm from my grasp and started walking away from me. “I’m going home.”

It was so bizarre for her to just dip out on me like this. She was typically the sweetest and most polite girl you’d ever meet. Really, I mean it. We hadn’t had any major arguments yet, and it really surprised me that she just left without giving me any hint as to why she was leaving.

Things got a little weird after that. We still hung out all the time, and she was still the Ashlynn I knew and loved, but she became a lot more reserved. We used to goof off and crack jokes with each other all the time, but now we kind of just stayed quiet. All our conversations were so surface level: about the weather, and town gossip, and our respective memories from high school. It really bothered me because I knew she had so much more to say than this but was holding back and almost pretending to be someone else.

Until one day, she finally broke down and started crying.

“Ashlynn, is everything okay? What’s the matter?” I was terrified, as anyone would be, but also kind of excited because maybe I was finally going to get to know what had been going on with her.

She was sobbing vehemently. Her face was soggy with tears, and she was borderline hyperventilating. And my god, her facial expression. Saliva dripped from her mouth, and her eyes were rattling. She looked like a little helpless animal that had been abused and left to die roped to a tree.

I squeezed her hand, but I was nervous to hold her or comfort her. She looked as though any gentle touch might startle her or cause her a great deal of distress. So I mostly just sat back and waited for her to say something.

“I… I”

“Yes? Go on, what is it? You can tell me, Ashlynn. Whatever it is. You can tell me, and I promise it’ll be okay.”

“I…” she sunk her head into her long, feathery skirt and buried her face in it, hugging her knees with her arms like she often did. “I can’t get out.”

“What?”

“I. Can’t. Get. Out. I can’t get out.” She said it with such emphasis and aggression that anyone else would’ve thought it was almost for comedic effect. But not me. My whole back became a cesspool of goosebumps.

“What do you mean you can’t get out? Get out from where?”

She opened her mouth a bit, deliberating whether or not she was finally going to tell me. Looking back, Christ, I wish she would have. She was so close. But she shut her mouth and didn’t say anything for the rest of the night.

A few minutes later, we got back in my car, and I drove her home with much uneasiness. I wondered if maybe she’d been getting abused or something, but I knew that she wasn’t going to stay with me or anyone else no matter how hard I tried to convince her.

After I dropped her off, I contemplated calling someone about this. I didn’t really know who to call. The cops, I guess? Or maybe child protective services? But I wanted to give Ashlynn some heads up about it. I was fully aware that this may put a huge strain on our relationship or maybe even cause it to end, but honestly, at this point I didn’t care. Her safety was far more important to me than our two and a half month long fling.

Surprisingly enough, when we saw each other the next day, she seemed perfectly fine. You’d have never guessed she was on the brink of an emotional meltdown just the night before. She wore a thick sweater so her sores were not visible at all, although I never forgot about them. And she was wearing a full face of makeup, which wasn’t typical for her. She looked very pretty, and genuinely seemed perfectly fine. She did not seem to be hiding anything, unlike the countless times before when she had hidden the way she really felt from me.

“Ashlynn? Are you feeling any better today?”

“Much better,” her face lit up as she stretched her arms out wide. “I honestly feel great.”

“That’s good,” I said. I was a little suspicious and was definitely still thinking about calling someone, but I thought I’d wait it out a while just to see how she acted for the next couple of days.

“What do you think caused you to feel better?”

“Well, I talked some things out with my family, and I realized something.”

“And what was that?”

She squeezed my hand and leaned in for a kiss. “A way that I can be gay and still be close to God.”

Oh, so that’s what this was all about. Honestly, I was relieved. Of course I didn’t want her to be this emotionally conflicted, but I’d rather it have been something she could work through than something far more sinister.

“Really? That’s awesome! You want to tell me how?”

She held her finger over her lips. “It’s a secret.”

Hey, as long as it would enable her to be healthy and happy with herself, I was all for it. No matter what it was.

The next few weeks went really well for us. Ashlynn seemed to be back to her old self. We joked around and were stupid and reckless just like we’d been during the first couple months of our relationship. I was really happy. And I could only hope that things would stay like this for a long while and that Ashlynn would only continue to get better over time.

One night, when we were driving down the highway, she turned to me and made what I felt was a rather odd request:

“Hey, so I know this sounds kind of weird, but would you like to go to church with me sometime?”

It did sound kind of weird. Not because I wasn’t interested or something. I used to go to church when I was younger and often enjoyed it pretty well. But wasn’t she super paranoid about people knowing she was gay? And wouldn’t having everyone see me there with her just perpetuate that?

“Sure, I’ll go,” I said. Because why not? “But are you sure it’ll be okay? Won’t it look kind of bad for us to be there together?”

“No,” she said, and she seemed very confident in herself. “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay. Trust me.”

“I do.”

And I really did. If she was so confident in her decision to bring me to church with her, then who was I to question it? Maybe her family and congregation had changed their minds about her. Maybe they had decided to become more open minded in general. Or maybe they hadn’t yet, but Ashlynn wanted to be bold and take a stand, and maybe show them our relationship as a means of getting them to reconsider their views.

Needless to say, I wanted to be supportive of her bravery. So that Sunday, I got all dressed up. I’m not the daintiest person ever, so I didn’t have a whole slew of dresses to choose from. I could only find one. It was white with black polka dots and very old fashioned looking. I remembered that my mother had passed it down to me when she said it didn’t fit her anymore. Oh well. It was all I had.

For whatever reason, Ashlynn made it very clear that she wanted to pick me up that day instead of the other way around. In fact, this whole affair seemed very meticulously scheduled and planned out. She would drive up to the front of my house, pick me up, we would go to church, stay for lunch, and then go see a movie afterwards. I thought it was rather odd. We were generally very spontaneous people who rarely planned for anything. But I understood that she was probably very nervous to bring me to church with her and probably wanted some sense of control.

So I let her have it.

At around 8:30 AM, she pulled into my driveway with sunglasses on and a big pearly grin permeating her face. Her window was rolled down, and she called out to me from the driver’s seat.

“That’s a cute dress.”

“A bit old fashioned, don’t you think?”

“Nah, not at all. Get in.”

I opened the door on the passenger’s side, slid into the seat, and met her with a quick peck on the lips.

“So, do you think we’ll make it there on time?”

“Plenty of time,” she insisted, “the service doesn’t start till 9:30.”

“Alright, cool.”

We backed out of my driveway and turned the radio up so loud that it was shaking the entire vehicle. Ashlynn reached out to hold my hand and, honestly, I can’t remember anything ever feeling so good. Just singing our hearts out to shitty pop songs and old OutKast hits. And seeing her happy again when she’d been distressed for so long.

“Samantha,” she said.

“Yeah?”

She turned her face towards me, trying to maintain control of the wheel as she leaned into kiss me again. It was quick, but wow, I could feel it. She reassumed her spot behind the wheel but wasn’t done talking.

“I love you.”

She had never told me that before. And I’d never had the courage to tell her. But now, just watching her move around to the music in her seat, giving me that look that she only gave when she was feeling on top of the world, I knew I loved her. I always had.

“I love you too.”

We didn’t say much else on that long car ride. I think we were both still taking in the words that had just been said. And at a certain point, we lost signal, and our jam session had to come to a close. I noticed that the longer we drove, the less we saw. At first, there were restaurants, and convenient stores, and a fair amount of people out and about. Then, there were gas stations and a tobacco store or two. Now, there was road. Long stretches of road, crumbling and riddled with potholes, running deep into the mountain with vast fields of dandelions on either side.

“Damn, this place really is way out here.”

“I told you,” she chuckled in a matter of fact kind of way. “That’s why I told you to get up early.”

“Yeah. What kinds of people go to this church anyway? Mountain people? Hillbillies? It’s so off in the middle of nowhere that I’m surprised it even has a membership.”

She didn’t say anything. Just kept her eyes fixed on the miles and miles of road ahead.

I didn’t want to say anything, but I noticed our tank was nearly on empty. I would have told her to stop and get gas before we drove all the way up here, but I had no idea it was so far away. Needless to say, I was getting this uneasy feeling. I kept imagining us breaking down somewhere in the middle of the boonies, and neither of us had any cell phone service up here. If that were to happen, God knows who we might run into or what they might try to do to us.

My stomach was in knots but I decided to keep my mouth shut.

“This is the road,” she finally said.

“Thank God.” I tried to pass it off as some kind of sarcastic joke, but it wasn’t. No, it wasn’t. I had goosebumps from head to toe. It felt so cold in that car.

“The road” was little more than a tiny dirt path that could have been easily missable if not for a rusty little sign that stood like a warning on the side of the main highway we were on. It was incredibly rocky. Our car was very obviously struggling just to pass through. Gravel shot up at us, undoubtedly causing some damage to the hood. I stared out far ahead of us as Ashlynn was rather focused on her driving. I was hoping to see a little building, any building really, just to gain some kind of reassurance that this place did in fact exist. But there was nothing.

“Babe, are you sure you turned down the right road?”

“Positive. Didn’t you see the sign?”

“Yeah but like… I feel like we’ve been going down this road for two miles, and there’s no sign of a church anywhere.”

“Shh, just relax,” she said as she squeezed my hand. I didn’t know if she was making fun of me for being scared or if she was genuinely trying to calm me down. “See? There it is up ahead.”

I felt my heart drop down into my stomach.

At the very least, I was hoping for a regular looking place. Even if it was small, even if it looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the seventies, I wanted to come upon a place that made me say “Oh, you’re right, there really is a little church up here.” Something that would ease the tension in my gut and help me to shake off all these bad feelings I was getting.

But this “place” looked like it could have been a century old. It was built from stone, but on every side, there were huge gaping holes where massive chunks of rock had fallen through: they now lay adjacent to the church like little tombstones. From the holes, there were weeds and wildflowers springing up and pressing themselves against the side of the building. There appeared to be stain-glassed windows, three on every side of the church: deep blue and this ghostly violet color. A steeple rose like a standard from the forefront, a crucifix sitting comfortably at the top.

There were no cars here. And from what I could see, no people.

“Ashlynn, what the hell is this?”

“What?” she snapped. She seemed genuinely offended by my question.

“Where are you taking me? This place doesn’t even look operational. There aren’t even any cars here.”

She stared straight ahead almost as though I never spoke a word. “We must be early.”

She pulled into a little patch of grass that lay at the front of the building. The place had no proper “parking lot,” not even a little allotment of dirt. She put the car in park and we just kind of sat there for a few minutes

At first, neither of us said anything. It seemed to me that Ashlynn knew she was going to have a hard time convincing me to go in with her. My hands held on for dear life to my seat. Never in my life had I felt more reluctant to leave the comfort and safety of a car.

“Ashlynn,” I finally said, “I’m not getting out of this car.”

“Why not?” she groaned. She looked visibly upset at this point, her eyes welling up and her lips quivering.

“I just don’t have a good feeling about this. I wish you would have told me what kind of place this was or where it was. I would have told you from the start that I didn’t want to go. Not only that, but you shouldn’t be coming up here either. Ashlynn, this is not a safe place for a seventeen year old girl to be. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. We haven’t seen a single person or car for probably five miles.”

“So what do you want me to do, just turn around and go back home?”

“Yes!”

“No!” she retorted, “We’re not leaving! I already told everyone you’d be here.”

“Who’s everyone? I don’t see anyone.”

She sighed and crossed her arms over the steering wheel as if giving up. I felt bad. I really did. But I could feel my fight or flight response kicking into gear. I’d never had a worse feeling about a place before.

“Samantha,” she cried, “This was going to be really important to me. Do you know how hard it’s been for me to work up the nerve to bring you up here? How much deliberation I’ve done? I’ve been waiting for this day for weeks. It’s so important to me. I don’t want you to just leave like this. Can you not just trust me? Just this once?”

I didn’t want to say yes. I shouldn’t have said yes. Nothing was going to stop this terrible feeling I was getting. But I did know how important this was to her. How important her faith was to her. How important I was to her. This was going to be her chance to reconcile the two. To help both her family and church to become more accepting of not only her, but of our relationship. And I was really going to take that away from her just because I didn’t like the way a place looked?

It was hard to say, but I eventually gave in.

“Okay,” I uttered, “but you owe me later.”

She laughed. That made me feel at least a little better.

“Thank you. This means a lot to me.”

We got out of the car, locked it, and I wrapped my arms around myself. I was still freezing cold even though it was pretty warm out. We stepped up to the church’s little red doors, and Ashlynn gently pushed them open. They creaked terribly.

Inside, there was a little lobby looking area. It was rectangular, and there really wasn’t much in it: a little table with two stacks on it, one of Bibles and one of hymnals. There was a dusty candelabra and a large set of doors that I could only assume led to the sanctuary.

At my right, there was an enormous stain-glass image of some biblical scenario. I was no theologian, but even I was pretty sure I knew what the scene was: it was Jesus giving the Sermon on The Mount. I remembered it from my many mornings spent in Sunday School as a child. In the picture, there was a crowd of people listening to Jesus preach. Jesus had his arm raised high in the air, with his finger pointed out towards his right.

Towards the door to leave.

It was stupid, but I couldn’t help but feel like the image was speaking to me. Almost as though it was warning me that I needed to get out of there as soon as possible. Another chill ran up my spine. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to get this thing over with so we could be on our merry way to the movie theatre.

Then I smelled something.

“Christ, what is that?” I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before. It was rancid. I cupped both my hands around my face. “Is there a dead animal in here or something?”

Ashlynn stood there silently.

I reached for the handle of the sanctuary doors.

“Samantha, wait! Don’t go in there yet.”

I turned to face her. I didn’t like the look on her face. It looked like she was hiding something. Something big. She held her arms out in front of her as though she was ready to stop me from opening the doors herself.

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

I opened the doors.

“… Christ. Christ. Jesus. Fuck.”

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw in that room. From the rafters hung dozens of ropes. And from the ropes… bodies. All naked. Dozens of them. Stinking. Rotting. Decaying. Some were strung up by the neck. Others by a foot. There were men, women, and children. And others that were so desecrated, you couldn’t tell what they were. But they all shared one thing in common: they were all covered head to toe with tiny sores. Perfectly round with tiny black dots in the middle.

“Fuuuuuuck,” the word struggled to pry itself loose from my shaking lips. I started foaming at the mouth. I started sobbing. I started hyperventilating. I could have tried to find my breath, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I plummeted down to my knees and started vomiting. All over the floor. If that horrific sight wasn’t enough to make me spill out all over the place, then the stench was. The scent of rotting human flesh filled my nose.

Everything about this place was evil.

Ashlynn rushed over to my aid. She kneeled down beside me and held my hair back, allowing me to vomit more and more. Continuous streams of digested food and even a little blood.

She did not seem at all phased by the mangled corpses dangling all around us.

“What… what the fuck?” was all I could say.

“I know. I know it’s surprising.” She held tightly onto me.

I did all I could to push her away from me.

“Don’t push me away, Samantha. Please don’t push me away. And don’t worry. Most of what happened to these people was consensual.”

I could barely think, but I knew that that made absolutely no shred of sense. These people were mutilated. Some of them were torn limb from body. Some of them didn’t have heads.

“Look,” she whispered, kissing my face and wiping some of the bile away with her hands. “Look at what they all say.”

I didn’t want to look but I forced myself to.

The one that first caught my attention was a woman: she was hung by the neck. She still had her hair, but it was matted and overrun with flies. She was clearly pregnant. There was a crude wooden sign nailed over her tummy. I clenched my head in disgust as I read the words scribbled on it:

“Fornication.”

I looked around the room. There was a man who had a sign nailed over his eyes: “lust.” There were two men tied up together. One of them had a sign nailed to his penis, and the other, whose back seemed to have been broken, was bent over with a sign nailed to his ass. Both said “sodomy.” There was a little girl with her tongue sticking out. I could see a nail jutting out on either side of her of it: “lying.”

I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to.

“Everybody sins, but some sin worse than others,” Ashlynn said. She pulled up her sleeve and glanced down at all the little sores on her arm, identically matching the sores of everyone else in the room. She had clearly gotten many more since the last time I looked at them. “I wanted to believe that I could get by with the needle alone. That the needle would be enough of a punishment for me to still be able to get into Heaven.”

What the fuck was the needle?

Then Ashlynn held her arm close to her and started crying. She looked somehow devastated. “But I realized that the needle was not enough of a punishment for me. I was too bad. Too perverse. The only way I was gonna be able to get to Heaven was if I died. You too, Samantha. No one gets to Heaven unscathed. Before we come out on the other side with our gold intact, we must first go through the fire. If we don’t go through the fire while we’re still here on earth, then we most definitely will in Hell.”

My mouth was agape. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Or what I was seeing. Any of it.

“Just think,” she smiled through her tears, “all these people are in Heaven now.”

“They’re dead,” I whimpered. “All of them.”

“And we will be too, soon,” she grabbed both of my hands and squeezed tightly. “They’re coming.”

I started hyperventilating again. “Who?”

“Them.” She pointed out one of the stain glass windows.

I looked out, and all I could see was movement. The windows were too dim and opaque to allow me to see who exactly was outside. But what I could see was shadows and outlines. Tons of them.

Of people in all black.

I gasped and mustered up all the strength I had to jump to my knees. They were shaking so badly that they nearly gave out. The first thought I had was to grab one of the signs- the one nailed over the man’s eyes- and use it to try and break one of the other stain glass windows.

I sprinted over to the corpse and got both my trembling hands around the sign. I kept yanking and pulling but it wouldn’t budge. I started panicking. This was all or nothing. Either I was going to yank this thing free, smash the window, and get out of here, or I was going to die.

With all my might I pulled. Eventually, the sign broke free, but only with two eyes stuck to the nails in the back. I was horrified, but I didn’t have much time to react. I bolted over to a window, rammed the sign against it, and shattered the glass.

I heard a door open.

My whole body shivered. But I couldn’t stop now. I jumped up and used my arms to boost me to the opening where the window was. I winced. Shards of glass were cutting into my abdomen. Thousands of them. I can’t remember anything hurting so badly in my life.

There was the sound of a door slamming. I heard voices and the jostling of feet.

I threw myself out of that window and landed on my side. I screamed. More pieces of glass had sunk into my skin. I leapt to my feet and booked it out of there. I was running for dear life and I wasn’t even sure if my feet would be able to keep up with me.

I hadn’t thought in advance about what I would do once I got back into the woods. I’d forgotten that I was in the middle of nowhere, with no cell phone service, and that there probably wasn’t anyone in a six mile radius who would be able to help me. So I just kept running and running. I didn’t stop, no not for a moment. My eyes were wide open and alert. At any moment, I could have run into one of those people in black. It scared me to think that there could be more out here to keep watch and make sure no one got away.