My cousin Rose was getting married in Old Bricton.
This might not seem significant but, for anyone who lived in the surrounding towns, it was. Old Bricton was a local legend. The town never made the news, though it was talked about. Whatever we heard, it was usually another business going bankrupt, or the plans to demolish a church. The plans never amounted to anything.
Old Bricton was a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and stone buildings, looking much too old to be standing. Some streets were so narrow you could lift your arms and run your fingers along opposite walls, while some were so wide, they allowed thirty people to stand side by side with breathing room.
I ran my fingers along a cold brick wall, as my mother hurried me along towards the centre of town.
“Be careful not to get your dress dirty,” she said as she marched along, the click of her heels echoing. She didn’t look at her surroundings, but kept her eyes fixed on a point ahead of her.
The day before the wedding, my father went on a “sudden business meeting” with his new attractive boss. He was hoping to get a “promotion.” So, it was just me and Mom walking through the streets of Old Bricton ourselves.
“Careful of that puddle!”
I stopped mid-stride and looked down at my feet. Sadly, my mother’s idea of a puddle was a tiny splash of water. I looked up at the sky and practically clear except for a few wispy things.
“Did it rain earlier?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It’s been sunny all week, you know that.” She didn’t seem to notice that she had just told me to watch for puddles.
I examined the rain-darkened brick around me. The buildings and the roads were like trees soaked after a storm. Even small patches of fuzzy moss poked out from corners. It had been raining, somehow, though I knew Mom was right about the weather.
The centre of Old Bricton wasn’t what you’d expect. There were almost no shops, too many inns and an over-abundance of churches. The churches were ancient stone giants, standing five-hundred feet tall. Each embodied the town; crumbling, but still standing against all odds.
We arrived at an intersection with four towering churches on either corner. Each was large enough to take ones breath away, if given the chance. Before I had a moment to look, I was pulled into a dark and widely detailed cathedral.
Everyone was there. My aunts and uncles stood around awkwardly, making conversation and trying to forget where they were. My female cousins stood in a corner, all dressed in pastels; soft and light colours. They looked at me and raised their eyebrows.
I looked down at my dress. It certainly wasn’t a rosy pink or a soft lavender. It was long, shimmering gold. Much more bold than my cousins would dare.
Even with the sun coming in the high windows, the nave seemed to swallow light. It had the potential to be beautiful, but it was too dark to see. Something else also caught my attention and caused the hairs on my arms to stand. The ceiling was hundreds of feet high, yet everyone’s voices were muted and caused no echo.
“When you get married, Sophie,” Mom began as we walked deeper into the Cathedral, “the ceremony will be held in that charming church in our neighborhood. It has so much more character.”
I didn’t respond but silently shook my head. Mom didn’t see as she was a few steps ahead, nor did she understand how wrong she was about me and the church. The one she labeled “charming” was a 50-year-old mid-century megachurch monstrosity without a smidge of character in it. But it was familiar and safe. That’s what mattered.
Mother dragged me into a room at the back where cousin Rose was getting ready, insisting that we had to help. Rose was already dressed when we arrived, and just about ready anyway.
She looked at Mother then me, then gave a knowing smile. Of all my cousins, she was the one I was closest to. We had a deep understanding and a love for all things odd and extraordinary; including this town and all its churches.
“Why don’t you go exploring?” Rose said as she walked up to me in her sparkling white dress.
I shook my head. “Mother would kill me if I left, and I’d probably get lost.” Not as if it was a bad thing necessarily, but if I was gone for more than five minutes, I’d be in so much trouble.
She patted my shoulder. “Go on. I can keep your mom busy for a while.”
I got up from my chair by the door as Rose went to distract my mother. Wasting no time, I slipped out of the room. I looked back at Mom in time to see her chatting with my aunt, unaware that her only daughter was leaving.
The inner hallways of the cathedral were much darker than the rooms occupied by the wedding. I had to keep my hand on one wall so I didn’t run into it.
A tiny breath of a draft danced along my arm, ushering me further into the building. My hand found a wooden railing and my foot found a staircase. I eased onto the first step, the wood underneath it groaned and creaked, but felt sturdy.
I heard noise above me and stopped. Looking up, and a tiny window gave me just enough light to see the flight of stairs winding up. It looked as if there was a shadow standing a few flights up.
I took off my shoes and then padded up the stairs, trying to be as quiet as I could in case someone was actually there.
Quick footsteps echoed down to me, moving upward.
I attempted to follow, taking two stairs at a time. My dress limited my speed and I silently cursed it. By the time I reached the top the landing was empty, but there was only one door in front of me.
The door opened slowly with a soft squeak. I poked my head into the room, but all I could see was dust hovering in mid-air. It didn’t float to the floor like dust would; it swirled around slowly, as if it were dancing.
As soon as I stepped into the room, all the dust fell to the floor like snow. My feet left footprints on the floor behind me. The room was large, each corner was a dark and mysterious cave. But, one in particular held a shadowy figure. Whoever it was, they were facing the wall, clothed all in black.
I hesitated, recalling what my mother used to say about strangers: Strangers are dangerous, especially those from Old Bricton.
The mysterious person mumbled something inaudible. They didn’t look at me or turn around.
“What?” I asked, not moving from my position close to the door.
“You should not be here.” It was male voice and he turned around to face me.
“I’m not stealing anything,” I said, “and I wouldn’t have come here if you hadn’t run away.” Though, that was partially a lie. I might’ve come in my exploration, but certainly not on purpose.
I could hear him breathing loudly until he said, “Do you know what happens when people come here?” When I shook my head, he continued, “If people from the outside go places they should not, someone gets hurt.”
While that statement was somewhat disturbing, it didn’t deter me. “I like this town better than my own home.”
“No one likes this town, anymore.”
“I do,” I repeated.
“Interesting,” he said. “Most from the outside do not bother to explore outside of their ‘little bubble.’” He stepped out of the shadows, and looked surprisingly younger than be sounded. His skin was chalk-like under the grey light coming in from the windows.
“Are you a ghost?” I said aloud without thinking.
“You could say that all the remaining people here are ghosts, made so by the world that turned against them.”
“What happens when someone moves in?”
He took another step towards me. “That does not happen anymore, the only people who come here are tourists and contractors.”
“The tourists are usually disappointed, aren’t they?”
“I would not say that. They tend to get lost in the city’s individuality.”
My stomach dropped as I caught on to the second meaning in his words. “You mean, the tourists never leave, do they?”
He shook his head and took another step, he was close enough now that I could see the grim smile on his face. “It is how the city survives, smart girl.”
I knew I should have run, but I didn’t want to. I thought of my mother, who was still downstairs, my cousin, and of my dad, who was probably being seduced by his boss. I knew I didn’t want to be apart of that life.
“I want to stay, but I won’t be a tourist.”
He nodded in recognition. “I understand. You will fit in here.” He reached out his hand.
I took a deep breath, sure of my decision, before taking his hand. It was cold, but I wasn’t surprised.
“I must warn you,” he said, “the deeper you get, the more lost you become.”