~ 1967 ~
The Winter Carnival couldn't be over soon enough. The ten day celebration was supposed to make Minnesota's bleak tundra bloom, but coming in late January, it was more like Old Saint Nick had fallen drunkenly back down the chimney on Christmas morning and tried to walk it off.
At least the girls in short skirts and go-go boots offered an occasional distraction from his beat. Street crime tended to hibernate through winter, but the Carnival always lured it from its cave and so the boys in blue were out in force. The torchlight parade, commencing in just a few hours, was usually the worst of it.
A bunch of crimson-clad vulcans blustered past him on their way to storm the ice palace. The Carnival's little passion play was really getting out of hand. A cartoon drum major waved at him from one of their Carnival buttons. "Hi, Neighbor!" was emblazoned across the top.
Don't remind me.
A middle-aged woman in a shawl and sandals turned the corner one block up and looked around as if lost. When her gaze fell across the policeman, she cracked into a smile and began to shuffle her way towards him. The policeman pinched the bridge of his nose. Time to humor another shut-in.
She approached him like a child at a petting zoo, full of cautious enthusiasm.
"Mother is dead," she told him. "Will you take care of me?"
"You live out here, Mikaela?" he asked as they trudged through the ice-packed woods. "Are you homeless?"
She laughed a high-pitched laugh that seemed to preface most of her answers. "We don't live in the woods, silly. We live in the church."
"Yeah, that's what you said, but there ain't no church in Highwood Park. I grew up around here."
Mikaela just kept on smiling and dragging her bare toes through the snow. They'd already walked much further than he'd thought possible. If she was trying to get him lost, she should've picked a bigger park. Still, his hand didn't stray far from his holster.
Suddenly, red and gold exploded in his field of vision. They'd emerged into a small glade where autumn still held sway, or maybe the place had wrapped itself around them while he wasn't looking. The policeman could've sworn he'd been staring straight ahead this whole time, but he felt like he'd just jolted himself awake after nodding off.
A tiny church stood amidst the trees. It was ramshackle and off-kilter, looked as if it'd been blown together by a storm, but every inch was lovingly decorated with flowers and fall leaves. It smelled like old potpourri, pungent but not altogether unpleasant. As they approached, however, something fetid began to claw at the edge of his perception. Mikaela pushed open the front doors and stepped inside. He paused a moment before following.
"Mother is dead. Will you take care of me?"
A corpse lay sprawled at the foot of the altar. She looked ancient, dessicated, but the smell of fresh decomposition made no mystery of her time of death. Her hair was bone white, but her nightclothes were yellow and tattered.
He took stock of his surroundings as he crept down the aisle. Handmade pews, engraved with a simple crucifix, occupied the main floor in uneven rows. One was missing, leaving an empty aisle seat about half way down. More flowers hung from the walls, the rafters, even the empty window frames, and the floor was peppered with petals.
When he reached the corpse's bare feet, Mikaela began twittering like a flock of birds. He looked up at her, but she just covered her grin and pointed back to the altar. The policeman looked down and met his own, empty gaze. He was lying at his own feet, dead eyes staring back at him, mouth agape. He staggered back and bumped into another officer, more than one. They filled the pews, pushed past him on their way towards the altar, where they laid flowers around his aged, lifeless doppleganger.
Atop the altar sat a black dog with red eyes, gloating.
Outside, he greeted the ground with a full embrace and said goodbye to his lunch. Rolling over, he clenched his eyes shut and checked his firearm. The cold metal grounded him, stopped the world from spinning. He opened his eyes and found Mikaela standing over him.
"He likes you," she beamed.
It was a long drive to Saint Peter.
They had time to talk of many things. She told him how the Church Grim stole her out of her parents' back yard when she was just a child and took her to live in the church with the old woman. "It chooses the people it chooses," she said.
That was right before a big storm, maybe the great gale of 1904? She wasn't always easy to follow, tended to talk about the past and future as she did the present. If it was 1904, Mikaela looked pretty good for her age. The church and the Grim have come loose from time, she told him. They experience everything at once. They can be in many places or vanish into thin air. She clapped her hands like a child at a magic show.
Her adopted mother, the barefoot corpse, taught her how to take care of the church. The Grim would bring them things, mostly small animals and random trash, but Mikaela still had to fetch things from the outside world. The Grim did not accompany her on these excursions, but she learned that she could send it after anyone who crossed her.
"The old man doesn't want to share," she frowns, "so I steal from his store. More than once. He catches me and slaps me so hard --" her eyes tear up and she has to take a few breaths. "His rings cut my face, but I steal one of them. The Grim sniffs it, growls. You never hear him growl. He leaves the old man's hand on the doorstep, rings and all."
Minnesota Hospital for the Dangerous Insane. That's what they used to call it. The staff didn't want to take Mikaela without a court order, of course, but the policeman dropped a few names and convinced the clerk to take her overnight. Psychiatric observation, they decided to call it.
He asked for a moment with Mikaela before they admitted her. "You'll live here from now on. These men will take care of you, but I'll visit soon. I have so many more questions, but right now I just need to know how to send the Dog after someone. Do I just need something with their scent on it? Does it need anything else?"
"You," Mikaela smiled as the orderlies took her away.- Daniel Bayn, 2013