A quick blip of light and they were back in their seats, right where they’d started. “Life is like mud, if you don’t have Jesus,” Pastor James said.
Jack noticed deep cracks in the skin of the Pastor’s face. One of his ears had fallen off and lay lifelessly on the floor next to his foot. No one noticed, not even the good pastor. Everything was starting to crumble. It was becoming ruined.
“Let’s go,” Jack said. They charged for the door.
One hundred and fifty-four minutes, that’s how far behind they were now ― two hours and thirty-four minutes. He’d never considered distance measured in time before and had no clue how long it would take to run back through each loop. So many things to go wrong. More horrifying was the possibility that it may not work at all. But it felt right, and that would have to do.
His hand collided with the foyer door, and the wood busted apart into a clumpy, gray powder. Another loop, two at the most, and there would be nothing left here. Dimly, he wondered what he and Laura looked like right now, and that thought frightened him.
Keeping her hand tightly held in his, they raced for the corridor. The light at the far end gleamed beautifully, a tiny beacon glowing at the end of a train tunnel.
“STOP!” the voice thundered.
Jack halted abruptly and swallowed a dry lump in his throat. We’ve got to keep moving, he told himself. If we stop, we lose time.
“Daddy, I’m scared.” Laura squeezed his hand tighter.
“We can’t stop, sweetie. Just hold onto me.” He took one last, courage-building breath, and ran.
Laura’s scream split the darkness like a knife. Her hand slipped away.
“Laura!” He whirled to find her.
“Foolish man!” the voice was everywhere. Behind him, ahead of him, above him. “This is my world,” it said. The wet stench of death flooded his mouth and nose. He gagged, then retched.
“Laura!” He screamed. Hot vomit shot to his throat, and he swallowed it back.
“Daddddeeeee!!!” It was dragging her back the way they’d come… whatever it was.
Shadows shuffled a few feet away, and Jack dove, gripping something, hoping against hope that it was Laura. His hand closed around an ankle, he thought. He scrambled to his feet, just as something swooped past his face. He ducked and labored forward.
“Don’t let go, Daddy,” she yelled. Nothing had grabbed him yet. Why just her?
He trudged forward, his feet sinking in the floor. My God, even the floor is turning to goo.
The end of the corridor waited eagerly ahead of them, drawing closer. The opening was covered in a thin, milky haze, and Jack’s mind played a dismal image where they simply bounced off of it, unable to pass. They’d caught up to the previous loop ― the 132 minute loop. How long had it taken?
Just before he broke through that murky film, the ghostly shape of the dark man materialized before him.
“Damn, but you sure is persistent,” the dark man said. “I wish I could just let you pass, but I can’t.”
“Why not?” Jack said. “Please.”
“Cause, dat ain’t my job, mister. It just ain’t. I needs to eat. And right now, I got to get you back to that last loop so I can start.”
Eating what? Eating us?
Jack stormed forward. Maybe the dark man would kill him, but by God, he wasn’t going down without a fight. Jack tried to grab hold, his fingers grasping for anything that might give him an advantage. To hell with this guy for trying keep them here.
And just like that, he found himself splayed on the floor of the church foyer, yelling like a maniac. And there was no dark man.
Laura stumbled out after him, her face covered with some sort of gray mud. “Daddy?”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” She checked behind her. “I don’t think he can actually touch us.” She looked dazed, like someone who’d just been shot at. “I was stuck in the mud or something.”
Jack climbed to his knees, then hoisted himself up to his feet. Maybe she was right. Maybe he couldn’t touch them because they weren’t from the same time that he was. Maybe the dark man was just another person stuck in the loop, and he’d never gotten out ― someone who’d gone insane in here. If the dark man couldn’t touch them, then he couldn’t stop them.
“C’mon.” He grabbed her hand, and they hurried into the sanctuary. Pastor James preached, just like always, but his ear was intact and the cracks in his face were gone. The clock read 11:50 a.m.
He quickly did the math in his head. At eighteen minutes and six loops, they only had about three minutes per loop if they were going to make it all the way back before the twenty-two minutes were up.
If we don’t make it, do we go all the way back to where we started or stay in the loop we’d made it to? He didn’t want to find out. Time to run.
“We’ve got to go like crazy,” he said. They bolted out of the sanctuary and into the corridor. The dark man yelled, but it was quieter, further away. Jack ignored it.
The corridor floor firmed up as they passed through each loop. They sprinted through five corridors before stopping, out of breath, to check the time: 12:05 p.m.
“Run!” he yelled, and they were off again, darting through darkness and emerging in light.
“We’re gonna make it, sweetie!” he yelled as they passed through the last corridor and burst through that hazy film.
Bright sun splashed through the foyer windows, and he raised a hand to shade his eyes. Laura scuttled up next to him. People mingling in the foyer stopped and stared. As he and Laura moved quickly to the sanctuary doors, someone said, “Where’d they come from?”
They burst into the sanctuary, relishing the solid sound of the door banging off the wall with a hollow bong. Jack fell to his knees as his eyes darted to the clock: 12:08 p.m. He took Laura’s hand. Please God. Please let us see 12:09 p.m.
“Jack? Laura? Are you okay?” Pastor James’ voice echoed from the main speakers, and Jack peeked up to find everyone staring at him. Pastor James stood at the front of the church, gawking with concern.
Jack collapsed onto the floor. A few people in the congregation got to their feet, and several hurried over to help. One thing that went unnoticed was that Jack and Laura were still sitting in their seats, totally asleep. As Jack watched in glorified amazement, the clock clicked to 12:10 p.m. Their sleeping forms in the seats slowly dissipated to nothing.
A dark man lingered. A dark man that no one could see, not even Jack and Laura, anymore. A lurid smile stretched across the skin of his face, revealing teeth too large, moist with saliva.
“You got good on this one, you two did, one more loop and you was mine,” he said. “But I still got you, and you better believe that you gonna pay up for gettin’ outta dat place. Dat’s my place.”
It turned and strolled lazily across the room, passing through the crowd of people, and out into the foyer where it entered the unseen corridor.
Where it waited.
D. Leroy discovered his love for writing at the age of thirteen. His love for reading and writing remains his passion and he craves nothing more than to provide his readers with a great story. After seven years in the military and over ten years as an IT consultant, he now resides right back in Warren County, Indiana with his wife and five children where he is currently finalizing his first novel.
“Loop” was previously published in Q2 2014 in The Midnight Diner. However, immediately upon publication, The Midnight Diner went defunct and the story never circulated.