Chapter 1
Red Red Devil Behind the Gate
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       “It is with great sadness that I conduct tonight’s sermon.”
A gunshot cracks in dead of winter in the depths of the woods, The Devil’s Gate, muffled by the thick of the birch trees. Marco Accardi stands at its heart, weathered by age, stress, and his misdeeds. He is morose, staring at the ground, and with his neck covered in the same red petals that grow on the birch trees that reside in the woods, growing up from under his skin. He cups the back of his neck with his hands, a white cloth in his left and a glock in his right. He regrets what he’s just done.

       “Sharing news of a death with you all is always a tragedy. It pains me deeply that tonight’s loss is not just of a familiar face, but of a dear friend.” Marco kneels to the ground, and blood rims the edges of his knees as it seeps through his pant leg and stains the snow in front of him, matching the red reeds growing up from the snow. Now full of remorse, he wipes down the gun with his cloth, his hands infected with the same red petals sprouting from the back of his neck, before placing it within arm’s reach in front of him.

       “And deeper yet, knowing that his death was carried out by his own hand. Tonight, we have lost an upstanding and cherished member of our community. One who, despite having only been able to call Las Espinas home just recently, carried the heart of our city within his own chest.”

Marco gets up, resolved now with the glock’s new, rightful home on the ground, and scratches the petals on his neck before he sees himself out of the woods. Petals and reeds suddenly flourish as if he had tended to them for months.

“It is with great sadness that I bear this news to you all.” A man, Noah Velazquez, lays dead on the floor of Devil’s Gate, embedded into the snow, and Marco’s gun by his stiffened hand. The seeping and pooling blood comes from his chest, freshly damaged with two bullet wounds entered straight into his heart. The flora of the woods flourishes around him, petals growing from his wounds and creating a bed of reeds for his lifeless body.

“Noah Velazquez is dead.”

Marco stands in his cathedral, backed by a triptych of three stained glass windows decorated with red petals and birch trees that illuminate the room in red. The Las Espinas cathedral is nearly empty, his sermon echoing from the walls of the expansive room and into the ears of no more than five surveyors. “I am sure we all find the absence of Noah’s warmth and music tonight to be unsettling, and that I speak for everyone when I say that I find that silence to be deafening. But, I feel in our hearts that we knew his end was near. We all witnessed his shame, and his deteriorating health, after the fires that claimed our dear, neighboring city of Sycamore.” Marco pauses, intentionally allowing the break to emphasize what he is about to say next.

       “Make no mistake, Noah Velazquez was a guilty man.” He says these words to convince himself of their truth, and begins scratching and plucking the petals on his hands, as if he can pluck the notion that what he is saying is a lie away. “So, while tonight we mourn a tragedy, we also celebrate that Noah found escape before he brought the same fate he granted Sycamore unto our very own Las Espinas. We will practice forgiveness in his death, despite his otherwise unforgivable wrongdoing. His service will be held tomorrow morning, in the thick of the birch woods in Devil’s Gate, where he had chosen to lay himself to rest.”

In daylight, Devil’s Gate is cast in gray, with sunlight shrouded by clouds and giving a stark contrast between the absence of color and the red of its native flowers. Snow has begun falling again. Noah’s body still rests at its heart, stiff and cold. “I would like to conclude tonight with a passage from a book not of our own faith, but of its influence. This is Matthew, 7:13-20.” Marco continues at his pulpit as wind blows snowfall more aggressively behind the gate. Petals grow from Noah’s eyes as they quietly begin to show signs of life. His pupils constrict, and the petals begin to wither and fall away from his tear ducts.

       “Enter in at the narrow gate, for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be who go in that way. Because narrow is the gate, and hard is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” The silence of Devil’s Gate is broken by Noah’s sudden, violent, gasp for air. He rolls over, coughing and wheezing, shedding fresh death from his lungs and cycling life back in.

       “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so, every good tree bringeth forth good fruit.” Still weak, Noah touches the coagulated blood on his chest left over from his injuries. It’s sticky. He eyes the gun in the snow, reaching for it and taking it with him as he gets up, and the bed of reeds that had grown around him in death now recede and die themselves as he moves beyond them.

       “But a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.” Noah checks his wounds, now gone and replaced with scars. He looks vacantly into Devil’s Gate, knowing that his resurrection is its doing, and offering a silent thanks before staggering away with Marco’s gun still in hand. He makes his way discerningly to the entrance gates of Las Espinas, a city that now knows him only as deceased.

       Marco begins to prepare his sermon’s closure, continuing to nervously scratch his neck and hands. “A good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth forth not good fruit is hewn down, and cast into fire. Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them. Tonight, we are thankful that our gates have been narrowed to the evil fruit of corrupt men like Noah Velazquez.”

       As Noah passes the entrance, the petals behind the gate where Noah’s body once laid bloom, creating a red blanket in the snow punctuated by the indentation where Noah had died, his body leaving behind a red ghost. In his cathedral, Marco ends his sermon with confidence and clarity.

      “Tonight, we are safe.”

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