“A Grandma Story”
FROM NOTEBOOK #3
This happened just last year, though it also relates to things that happened when I was seven, maybe eight years old.
There’s a church called Our Lady of Temperance downtown, near the Ochre Towers housing complex. It’s not particularly outstanding, although I think it’s been around for at least fifty years. The façade is nice enough, but it’s clearly fallen into disrepair. I think there were intentions to declare it as “cultural heritage,” but the funding never materialized. The steps are dirty and frequented by the homeless. There’s a little gated garden to the side which houses an altar of the Virgin, and, if you’re lucky, a few napping stray cats. My grandma went to Mass there, without fail, for the last couple decades of her life.
Personally I’m sure I’ve been inside the church at least once or twice, as a child, but I don’t actually remember much. Looking up images online (there aren’t many), nothing about it seems particularly notable. It’s roomy and solemn enough, and there are some nice paintings of Bible scenes in between the stained-glass windows. I’ve been looking at pictures in an attempt to recall any memories of the church I may have, but it hasn’t worked so far. I guess I could just go there, but I think I’m going to need some time before I feel up to the task.
Anyway, back in October or so last year I was an intern for a friend’s dad’s textile company, doing some of the data entry and number-crunching, nothing special. In fact, it was mind-numbingly boring most of the time. Two saving graces, though: I didn’t have to dress formal, and I was unsupervised nearly all day. So naturally there was a lot of time wasted clicking around on the computer, idly chatting with friends. I was crammed into a little storage room, with boxes of dusty files and moth-eaten binders piled up to the ceiling behind me, and the glow of an old PC in front of me. Yellowed papers--ancient receipts, notarized letters, and heaps of stapled photocopies--were also stacked in front of me, neatly framing by claustrophobic “work station.” A monobloc chair and a company coffee mug were provided. To my right, a dusty window looked out over the industrial park where headquarters were located. My only company were the other administrative employees, all in their forties or older. So it was definitely a little grim. (This was also why I borrowed B.’s old Gameboy for a couple months, by the way.)
At the time I was so bored that I’d even refresh news pages throughout the day, since at least they were something to read. (The company’s IT person wasn’t sophisticated enough to block access to any sites, but I was too self-conscious to search for web games or porn on a work computer.) In those weeks, LPP* had inaugurated a “Citizen News” service, which produced online stories based on text-message reports submitted by citizens about the goings-on around town. It was a mess, obviously. Most people used it to complain about neighbors flaunting curbside parking regulations, or failing to pick up their dogs’ poop, or “loitering” in public parks (always a tinge of racism to those complaints), etc. I think it was retired just a few months later. Whatever came through those channels was either inconsequential or impossible to verify.
In my days of idle newswatching from the depths of that lonesome internship (I did last eight months there), I stumbled into a Citizen News report that immediately caught my attention, because it came from Our Lady of Temperance. I hadn’t thought about the church in years by then, but it was etched into my mind as synonymous with my grandma, and my childhood. The contents were alarming. I can’t remember the exact wording of the headline, but it was something like: “Mysterious Stranger Terrifies Churchgoers at Morning Service.” Clicking through to the report revealed that it was tagged as a “developing story.” There were precious few details; the body was about as long as the headline. It went something like “multiple reports have surfaced of a mysterious figure in black whose presence has alarmed churchgoers at Our Lady of Temperance morning service.” This was happening as I sat in that chair, some ten kilometers away from me, on an October morning.
I thought about calling grandma to make sure she was alright--she was always present at morning Mass--before I remembered that, like most people her age, she didn’t have, or know how to use, a cell phone. I thought about calling my mom to alert her of the situation, but that felt like a step too far. Did I really want to worry her over what could very easily be a hoax, or a silly misunderstanding? What could a “mysterious figure in black” be doing in a Church, anyway? That hardly sounded like a robbery or a hostage situation. (Who robs a church?) In fact, it almost sounded like what you guys enjoy calling “Weird Shit,” and that wasn’t lost on me at the time. So I didn’t do anything for the moment. I sat on the edge of my seat and refreshed the page obsessively, having completely forgotten my obligations.
The first update to the story came approximately fifteen minutes later. An addendum to the body text: “Witnesses report that the figure has not engaged with or threatened churchgoers, and is simply walking about the building interiors. Service has not been interrupted.” (I’m heavily paraphrasing here, recalling from memory.) So at this point I fell back on my seat and relaxed a bit. This didn’t seem like much of anything, after all. At best, this was some old lady dressed in black who had rattled the most easily-rattled group of people in the world (churchgoing old people) with her presence. Maybe she was wearing a veil or something. I can see how that would be creepy. Some twenty minutes later, the webpage updated with a picture.
It was grainy, low-quality, badly-lit and what-have-you, but arguably that only made it more disturbing. Someone with a camera phone had managed to snap a picture of the mysterious stranger in the church. It was no old lady, that’s for sure. I distinctly remember feeling something in the pit of my stomach when the image loaded. It was a raggedy, tall, slender figure; almost certainly male, though impossible to be sure. It was completely covered in black fabric. Not like a ghostly sheet; it seemed to have been wrapped, from head to toe, in black, gauze-like rags. It was hard to discern the exact nature of the material from the picture. Wispy little frills trailed behind its feet. It has been caught in motion, prowling with an awkward gait across the halls that surrounded the pews. Its arms ended in tendrils of rags which could not be discerned as hands. The clothing didn’t seem functional, much less deliberate. It looked like someone who’d escaped from a hospital burn ward, or a grave.
I’m sorry, I keep saying “it” even though I now know that “it” was a “he.” At any rate, I could see why the stranger had caused such alarm. His face was completely invisible; I imagined that holes had been punched into the fabric for breathing and sight, but it was impossible to discern from the image provided. Its posture suggested a hunchback; it was impossible to determine height without something else in the image for comparison, but I would venture to guess he was taller than most.
I didn’t really know what to do at this point. The unreality of the situation washed over me like a cold sweat. Was anyone in danger? Was my grandma there? Was there any real motive for alarm? I continued to refresh the news page for the next fifteen minutes, but there were no updates. I wasn’t the only one who was bored at work, though. One or two user comments were appearing beneath the article. Nothing really notable: jokes about ghosts or predictions about the biblical apocalypse, etc. At the very least you couldn’t say it wasn’t attention-grabbing.
With nothing else to do, and no intention to get back to work, I texted a friend for her opinion. (You don’t know her; her identity’s not important to this story.) I told her to check the Citizen Report for the weirdest developing story. She rolled her eyes at me and chastised me for having nothing better to do. But then the texts started rolling in. Three different friends--F. among them, you can ask him--were following this story online. (Do you people have a sixth sense for “Weird Shit” that I haven’t developed yet?) Apparently we were all very bored, and very interested. I started exchanging opinions over the phone until the news site updated again.
* This is a local news broadcast network (the initials have been changed for anonymity).