On the day that the mailer had arrived announcing Simon’s receipt of scholarship to Saint Vincent Academy, Simon had just finished unpacking his room in his mother’s new apartment. The mailer went to his old home, the house where his father lived, and his father called his mother right away. Simon came out of his room to find his mother on the phone with his father. She was leaned against the door frame, twisting a lock of her hair around her finger and holding the cordless phone to her ear with her shoulder. She was wearing gray sweatpants and an old flannel man’s shirt. It wasn’t the kind of thing Simon’s father would’ve ever worn.
Later, Simon’s mother drove him over to the house and he went inside to retrieve the mailer while she waited for him with the car running, radio blasting 80s pop music. He exchanged a few pleasantries with his father.
Feeling better these days.
Starting with the psychiatrist in a week. Mom thinks it’ll be good.
…yeah, the funeral was nice.
Back at the apartment, Simon and his mom opened the mailer together. Everything inside was crimson and gold. The letter was printed on ivory paper with handwritten calligraphic print: We are pleased to inform you that…
Simon couldn’t recall applying for the academy or any scholarship. He and his mother had never heard of Saint Vincent before that moment. They did a little bit of research. The campus was nearby, and along the way to work for Simon’s mother. She liked the idea of being able to drop him off — ‘like a Stepford Wife type mother’, she joked. Simon used to take the bus to his old school. He would wake up at five, throw on some clothes, and race to the bus stop. His was one of the first on the route so he had his pick of seating. He always went to the back, hiding his head in a book or pretending to be asleep. It always smelled of old fish and stale sweat on the bus.
“Besides,” his mother had said, taking his hand and smiling down at him, “Do you really want to go back to your old school?”
Simon had thought the phrase was funny at that moment. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around what it meant to ‘go back’ anymore. Every time he took a step forward in life it felt like everything around him shifted to a point where there was no turning around anymore. There was no where to go back to. The only option was to keep moving forward. He made the decision right then to transfer to Saint Vincent Academy. He and his mother went online to accept the scholarship, fill out the enrollment paperwork, and order him uniforms.
“They’re so expensive,” his mother had lamented, the scholarship money would only cover tuition, “I’ll order you a few shirts and the blazer in a bigger size, that way you can grow into them.”
That was five weeks before the first day of school. The same day to a year that the cathedral burned down.
In the night, after his enrollment was finished and his uniforms ordered, Simon dreamed of the school. He’d never been there, but he’d thumbed through all of the brochures and took the virtual tour on their website. His mother had promised they’d go to the campus and walk around before he started there, but he knew it wasn’t going to happen long before she stood over him at the dinner table apologizing for never taking him over there.
The dream school felt vivid, almost real, though. Simon had stood outside of the cathedral and he could see every detail right down to the fine cracks in the building’s brick and mortar. There was a blonde girl there dressed in the school uniform, crimson blazer with a gold patch of the school’s emblem on her left breast, white button down, crimson red tie, and black skirt paired with knee high socks and black Mary-Jane flats. Her hair fell around her face in greasy strings, and her brown eyes were surrounded by racoon black bags of sleep deprivation.
“Once upon a time,” she said, “There was a downtrodden priest that had given up. Until one night, drunk in a ditch, he had a vision of a school. He woke the next morning inspired to build, and build he did.”
The world had moved around them, and they stood inside of the cathedral. Simon could see the engraved wood panels, demons fighting angels. The ceiling was painted with images that swirled and changed before Simon’s eyes of battles being fought in distant lands and foreign places. The girl’s uniform was now singed, her hair charred away, her skin was covered in red and black burns and smudged with soot. She led the way past parishioner pews further into the cathedral towards the altar and Simon followed.
“He built until his fingers bled and his back broke. He built until his body was fevered with exhaustion and his hair had turned from black to white. He built until he died,” the girl walked to a corridor on the right side of the altar, “Whether he had been inspired by his lost God or a demon, he never knew.”
Down the corridor, to a door with a golden lock on it that felt to the floor with a rattling clank, and winding down stone steps, she led and Simon followed. They came to a stop in front of a red door. The girl took Simon’s face into both her hands, all of her flesh had now burned away, and what remained was charred, red angry tissue, exposed muscle and scorching bones. Her eyes locked on Simon’s, the reflection of a fire bouncing off their glistening white.
“You’ll need a match,” she said, “Take a match. Burn it at the altar.”
“Burn what at the altar?” Simon wondered.
The girl grinned, her cheeks dripped from her face to reveal sinew and blackening bone beneath, “Take a match…”
“What are you talking about? What match? To burn what?” Simon demanded.
“You have to burn it. Burn it to ash.” The girl’s left eye bubbled and popped out of her head.
They moved again. Down the corridor, to another door with a lock on it, and winding down stone steps, she led and Simon followed. They came to a stop in front of a red door. The girl took Simon’s face into both her hands, all of her flesh had now burned away, and what remained was charred, red angry tissue, exposed muscle and scorching bones. Her eyes locked on Simon’s, the reflection of a fire bouncing off their glistening white.
“Take a match and burn it. Whatever you do, Simon Glass, stay away from the red door.”
Simon woke from the dream drenched in sweat and parched. He hurried to the bathroom to shovel water into his mouth out of the sink faucet. When he raised his eyes to the mirror, the skin where the girl in his dream had held his face was bright red.