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Stained Glass

Stained Glass

Estimated reading time — 19 minutes

Some urban legends have a way of weaving themselves into communities like a sparkling accent. When I was a substantially younger man, our favorite local tale was the Grapevine Angel story. A crumbling and weathered concrete angel stood vigil in Grapevine Cemetary over the grave of someone whose name had long worn away from the porous headstone. The oldtimers in town said if you kissed your true love in front of the stone figure under the light of a full moon, the wings would flutter.

My generation wasn’t satisfied with an endearing folk tale. Most aren’t these days, so it seems. No, at some point it transformed into a grim tale of terror and revenge for anyone foolish enough to cross the angel’s path after sundown. Gone were the sweet thoughts of finding your everlasting love and an angel of vengeance came in its place. Teen angst was well in place with every generation, though I think they get a bit darker every decade or so.

Two stone hands that had once reached toward the heavens had long ago broken away. Time and erosion took them if you asked the cemetery caretaker. An angry drunk shot them off in a fit of rage if you asked anyone from my graduating class. He was found down the road, they said, eyes missing and a stone hand shoved down his throat.


Of course, both stories are absolute bullshit. How do I know? Evidence. I always trust the evidence.

The first version of the tale is sweet, don’t get me wrong. Who wouldn’t love to think you could kiss your girl in the shadow of a grave marker and find out if they were the one meant for only you? I’ll admit I tried. Rose Ellis and I stood in the moonlight below that angel the summer before our senior year. Those stone wings held firm as we kissed in the darkness. We got married anyway and had a lot of happy years together until a brain aneurysm took her away far too soon.

Version two is equally false and the evidence backs that up as well. No record exists of a man being found on Sandcut Road with no eyes and a stone hand in his esophagus. I guess some of you think there is that outside chance it could have happened. If you’re a local, you almost certainly think I’m wrong. I get it, but the evidence is once again on my side.

You see, I joined the Madison Police Department a few years out of high school. Night shift in a town of less than twenty thousand wasn’t exactly a thrill a minute. Sure, you’d have a couple of public intoxication arrests or the occasional break-in, but a lot of our nights were spent at the station listening to the scanner and taking a call here and there. During my first year on the job, I scanned old reports from 1960 to 1990 looking for a single file to corroborate the Grapevine Angel killing.

Guess what? Not a damn thing to be found. Follow the evidence. It usually won’t let you down.

Urban legends, as I said, have a way of weaving into a community. The Grapevine angel lasted generations and the tales still thrive today to my understanding. I chased my fair share of high schoolers out of that cemetery in the dead of night until I moved on to a position as a homicide detective. Beat cops would still laugh around the breakroom when someone mentioned catching a batch of kids out there.


I’m not here to talk about the angel, though. Sorry if you feel misled. My thoughts wander more often than not these days. Old age and cheap alcohol drag you in odd directions. Retirement has played hell on my mental health and self-medication is all I have left.

No, I want to tell you about Old Salem Church and its stained-glass windows. Amber Bates, too. I’ll try and make sense of it all, but there’s a problem. Evidence. That word has defined so much of my life. I flounder without it and there is so damn little here that it has driven me mad.

Sometimes urban legends weave into a community like cancer. It penetrates places you cannot see and chokes the life out of everything it touches. Thick roots grow and spread before you can do anything to stop it.

Sometimes these legends aren’t legends at all.

* * * * *

Everyone around the Madison PD knew about the disappearances in the unincorporated township of Crenshaw. It was a constant topic of conversation at the water cooler or during a third round at Duke’s Saloon. With a population danging just under a thousand, Crenshaw wasn’t much more than a dot on the map, but it drew law enforcement’s attention in a way a place that small never should.

People vanished there frequently. At least forty-five from 1966 to 2022, ages ranging from fourteen to nineteen. Primarily teenagers from Madison and other surrounding communities. Most if not all of them were related to the dilapidated Old Salem Bible Church on Parkway #3 Road. It was little more than a skeleton with a dipping roof when I graduated too many years ago and time hadn’t been any more kind to it since.

Old Salem Church was a party house for teenagers. A trust had been established to take care of it, but at some point, interest waned and it fell into ruin. Gates and fencing had been installed decades before to keep trespassers out, but the same lack of care as the building brought them to ruin. As a young beat cop, I was relieved not to have it in our jurisdiction.

Seeing as we were cops over in the “big city” of Madison, none of these disappearances hit our desks. The troopers at the state police and the country sheriff’s office handled investigations in the rural areas. While Crenshaw was only fifteen minutes outside of our city limits, they made it known our assistance wouldn’t be necessary.

Hell, even when someone from our sleepy little town vanished there, the troopers refused to share case information. What little bit we knew came from the poorly written local paper or the liquor-loosened lips of a trooper stopping at Duke’s for a few rounds before heading home. I know I may make the state patrol sound like a cluster of assholes, but that’s how it was back then. Territorial. Cases are to a detective what a bone is to a dog: it’s yours and you don’t give it up easily or without a fight.

It turns out curiosity really does kill the cat. In the mid-nineties, the city of Madison annexed unincorporated Crenshaw causing a laughable population increase of a thousand and increasing our territory a bit farther into the rural areas. While I didn’t think much of it at first, that changed quickly when Jeanie, our file clerk, rolled a dolly of careworn cardboard boxes to my desk and dropped them with a thud.

“What’s all this?” I asked with a comical eyebrow arched in her direction. “Runnin’ out of room in storage?

“Cases from the state police and sheriff’s office,” she replied with a tired smile. “They’ve been coming in all day and I’m dropping them off as they arrive. Don’t worry, Henry. Only one of them is yours.”

My eyes drifted to the box she slid onto the corner of my desk. There had only been one homicide in Crenshaw in the previous three decades and it seemed unlikely there would have been more than two or three folders worth of material for that. A drunk farmer named Harold McCoy had shot a hired hand for trying to teach his daughter about the “birds and bees”. The case was so old that McCoy was paroled and in his grave by then. An entire box seemed a bit much just for that.

“Jeanie,” I mumbled, “This can’t all be homicide cases. There are more pounds of paper here than people in Crenshaw.”

“Just doing as I’m told, Detective Welborn,” she replied, tossing me a playful salute. “Lots of missing person cases transferred over and the chief said to split them up between detectives. Cold cases. Weekend work, he called it.”

I was to object further, but before I could, a young fella was yelling for Jeanie from the file room. Another load of files, I guess. No more showed up at my desk that day and that was a small relief. My workload wasn’t exactly overflowing, but I was due to testify in court three times over the following month and had spent most of those days preparing my testimony.

Pulling open the box, I briefly thumbed through some of the files. The papers inside were nearly as yellowed as the folders they sat in. A rolling must of mothballs and stale air seemed to waft out. It was like opening an unused barn in the heat of summer. Overwhelming. My stomach turned at the aged aroma.

The clock on my desk told me it was nearly quitting time. While most people live for the end of the workday, it wasn’t my highlight. The house was a lonely place. Just an empty box I sat in until I went to sleep. Nothing there but me and daydreams of what life should have been like. Rose had died less than a year before, and I should have been home when it happened. Maybe I could have helped. Probably not, but those intrusive thoughts like to stay for a drink when they creep in.

I’d found her on the floor in the kitchen after working a double. Her eyes were open and she just had this confused look on her face. Maybe she felt the aneurysm before it ruptured. Maybe she was trying to figure out what spice she was looking for in the open cabinet before fell. I just held her and cried for God knows how long. She felt cold, and I just wanted to warm her up.

My thumb fidgeted with the label on one of the folders. There was nothing before me but an endless night of trash television, a microwave meal, and talking to a woman who could no longer answer me. I decided to take a look at one of the missing person cases before the chief asked. Tucking the box under my arm, I headed to the car.

* * * * *

A glass of scotch in hand, I read the thirty or so pages of the first moldering case file.

Trevor Bates was the sixteen-year-old son of Homer and Amelia Bates. His father worked as a brick mason and his mother was a homemaker. The young man had gone missing in the summer of 1968. His friends reported that he had last been seen at a small gathering at Old Salem Church.

During the evening he vanished, between five and eight teenagers congregated at Old Salem Church to drink beer around a bonfire. It was noted in the file that while teenagers frequently held parties there due to the remoteness of the location, they were always held outside. The church building seemed unsafe even to youth who used the property.

According to at least three of the witnesses, Trevor smoked marijuana for the first time that evening. No one described him as out of control, but he verbally stated he wanted to explore the inside of the church. The others attempted to talk him out of entering the dangerous building, but he insisted he need to go inside.

An unidentified young woman told the investigators that Trevor confided in her that someone from school told him that if he went into the church under the light of the full moon, the stained glass windows in the chapel would show him five scenes from his past and one from your future. She showed him that all of the windows had been broken, but Trevor insisted that he needed to go inside.

While the remainder of the group sat at a bonfire sipping beer, Trevor slipped away and entered the church. Fearful that the structure was unstable, the other teenagers called his name from outside but received no answer. Two of the young men retrieved flashlights from their vehicles and shined them into the broken windows but saw no sign of their friend.

Mr. and Mrs. Bates reported him missing the following morning to the county sheriff’s office. A call had been made by an unidentified source that morning providing the names of others in attendance. They were questioned and released to their parents, having provided no useful information as to Trevor’s whereabouts. His pickup truck was discovered parked behind a treeline on the Old Salem Church property. A sweep of the building produced no additional evidence.

At the bottom of the final page were scribbled four strange words.

Windows are all unbroken.

It was an odd remark to add as it contradicted the earlier statement when the young woman reported showing Trevor the broken windows. I picked at the thread with my mind but moved on when I found no solid grasp. Still, it nagged at my mind like food caught between your teeth.

No one ever saw or spoke with Trevor again.

The case was unremarkable yet. It was the sixties; the age of free love, cheap dope, and aimless youth. It wasn’t unheard of in those days for some bored farm kid to hop in an old Volkswagen van with a crew of perfect strangers and go to find “enlightenment” on the coast. A load of drunk, stoned teenagers saying he vanished in an old church was difficult to believe.

But the kid had still gone missing. Him and over twenty more. No contact. No evidence. No bodies. Just vanished like smoke on the breeze.

While I had intended only to read the first file, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table as the sun crawled over the horizon. I’d gone through all of the cases that night and into the next morning. Sometimes a kid vanished at a party. Other times someone would disappear randomly. Days later, a friend would tell the missing child’s parents or a trooper that they were headed to Old Salem Church to see their future.

There was the occasional mention of increased patrol activity in the area. Troopers and deputies made regular checks of the place, but it was hard to keep it covered. Area funding was thin and there was barely enough coverage for the rural areas in those days. Even on the occasion that a trooper happened upon a kegger at the old church, the kids would scatter to the wind before a cruiser could make it down the rutted gravel drive.

After a disappearance, patrols would increase. But we’ve got short memories. After a tearful mother leaves the news cycle, patrols tend to be redirected to higher-population areas. It’s almost like we never learn a damn lesson.

Every disappearance led back to those damn stained glass windows. I had chuckled the first two or three times. It reminded me of the Grapevine Angel of my youth. These kids flocked to the church for the same reason I had taken Rose to the cemetery for that long-ago kiss. A possible glimpse at the future.

Silly as the urban legend was to me, I had read case after case of teenagers going missing from the same place over the course of decades. Grieving parents and siblings would occasionally call our department after we annexed the township. Some of the people had been missing for two decades, but you could hear the ripe grief in their voices.

I read every damn one of those case files from cover to cover at least a dozen times in the small hours of the night. Making notes on similarities, spitballing a profile for a serial killer I doubted even existed. The frustration of the drunken troopers at Duke’s made sense. There was just no damned evidence in those files.

* * * * *

I had intended to go to work the following day, but I knew I’d never be able to concentrate on my work. With my best impersonation of a flu-tinged voice, I called dispatch to inform them I wouldn’t be coming in. Instead, I slid behind the wheel of my truck and drove toward Crenshaw.

Parkway #3 Road was only a road by virtue of its name. In reality, it was no more than a rutted gravel drag scabbed with high patches of grass. My old pickup rumbled roughly in the dips and over the sudden rises. The weathered steeple of Old Salem Church bobbed over the treeline ahead of me like a crooked vulture neck waiting for its next meal to die.

A chill ran down my spine as creeping fear surged through my body. I knew I should have turned the truck around, but my foot deadened on the gas and continued to push me forward.

As I pulled around the line of trees blocking it from my view, the full church came into vision. Perched on a squat hill, the grayed wooden building looked as though it may collapse at any moment. Bright shards of colored glass bordered the window frame looking like a rainbow of incisors. It had looked that way for decades. Once a place of worship, it became no more than a flophouse for drunk kids.

Sitting just at the bottom of the hill on the hood of a battered blue Ford Taurus sat a young woman.

I put the truck into park a few yards from the unexpected visitor, I jumped out and walked toward her.

“How you doin’ today, ma’am?” I asked in the friendliest voice I could muster. Finding someone there in the middle of the day hadn’t occurred to me and her presence made me feel uneasy. She had long brown hair that framed a mischievously pretty face. Smoke drifted around her in the lazy afternoon breeze. She looked a bit like Rose and it made my heart ache.

“You the cop?” she asked, and I froze.

“Pardon me?”

She slid down from the hood of her car and walked in my direction. We made eye contact and the intensity of her gaze nearly made me look away. It felt like she was looking into my soul. Almost as if she knew something about me that I didn’t know about myself.

“I asked if you are the cop,” she replied in a soft but serious tone. “I didn’t think you’d show.”

“Why would you expect to meet me here?” I asked. “I don’t know you.”

“I don’t know you, either,” she said with a smirk. “But here we are.”

“I’m Detective Henry Welborn with Madison PD,” I said, slipping my badge from my back pocket. She looked at it with the intensity of a trained killer. “What’s your name?”

“Italy Sky,” she responded hesitantly.

“That sounds… unlikely,” I said. The young woman shrugged and looked toward the ground. “Mind showing me some identification?”


“I don’t have to show you my ID,” she spat. “Haven’t done anything illegal.”

“No one said you did,” I responded. “Just like to know who I’m talking to.”

She fumbled a hand into her back pocket and extended a laminated card in my direction. I took it gingerly from her hand and looked it over. Amber Bates filled the name line on the card next to a picture of her with the same captivating smirk.

“Look,” she said. “I didn’t lie. My parents named me Italy when I was born, but changed it a few months later. But I like it. It’s unique. And it keeps people from asking me about my uncle.”

“Who is your…” I began, but the words died off before I could finish the sentence.

Her uncle was Trevor Bates.

* * * * *

For hours Amber and I sat on the tailgate of my truck smoking her cigarettes and doing our best not to look at the skeletal church just ahead of us. When I asked why she was there, she just kept repeating that she was supposed to meet me. I asked her to elaborate, but she said it wouldn’t make sense. I did my best to let it go, but the vagueness festered in my mind.

She was the daughter of Trevor Bate’s youngest brother. Since the youngest age she could remember, her family would only talk about him in hushed tones. Whenever she saw photos of him and asked her parents to tell them more about him, they changed the subject. A missing family member was always a delicate subject, but Trevor Bates had been the first of many disappearances from that damned place and the family wore it around their necks like an albatross.

Stories of her lost uncle followed her all through her school years as well. Children teased her and teachers seemed to interact with her as little as necessary. The girl grew up like an outcast based on small-town superstition. I nodded and smoked as she told me about those troublesome years.

“I met a nice boy in high school, though,” she said with a smile. “Michael Baxter. We were only seventeen, but I thought we may get married, ya know?”

His name struck my brain like a bolt of lightning. Michael Baxter had gone missing seven years ago at Old Salem. A few high school seniors camped out probably fifty feet from where we sat on the tailgate of my truck. When the boys woke up the next morning, Michael was gone and the doors to the old church were pushed inward.

No foul play suspected, his file had said.

“I met my wife when I was seventeen,” I said through a lump in my throat. “The sting never really goes away when you lose someone.”

Amber looked at me in confusion. I could tell she wondered how I knew about Michael, so I tapped my badge sitting between us to silently indicate where I had gotten the information. She smiled at me sadly and nodded before lighting up another cigarette.

“I need to get going,” she said as her shoes made contact with the hardpacked dirt. “It was nice to meet you.”

“Amber… Italy,” I called out as she walked back to her car. “How did you know you’d meet me here?”

She sat in her car and fired the engine.

“I went inside after Michael vanished,” she said, pointing toward the church through her open car door. “Saw it in the stained glass.”

“What did you see?” I croaked. My pulse skyrocketed and I could feel hot blood and the pounding of my heart in my ears.

“Don’t go inside, Henry,” she called back. “I think that’s what the last window wanted me to tell you.”

“What did you see?” I screamed at her, but it was too late. Amber shut the door of her car and hammered the ignition down the rough path. I watched as the pillars of dust floated into the air and her taillights broke the fallen darkness of the evening.

I would find out later that like so many others, no one ever spoke with Amber again. Her blue Ford Taurus was discovered twenty miles out of town on the side of the Pennyrile Parkway. I never saw the report, but I always wondered what it said.

Probably No foul play suspected.

* * * * *

Amber had left the rest of her pack of cigarettes on the tailgate and I sat in the dark, smoking them all and gazing at the edifice of Old Salem Church. Headlights shot through the dilapidated structure from the parkway nearby giving it the illusion that dark things moved between the wooden boards of the wall. I knew I should get in my car and go home, but I wanted to go inside and see the place for myself.

I wanted evidence.

Pulling open the rusting toolbox in the bed of my truck, I grabbed a flashlight and a crowbar. I slipped on the light and aimed it at the church, bile roiling in my guts. As I began to walk toward the door, I felt like a child scared of the darkness. There was no sensible reason to be filled with so much dread.

I pushed against the door expecting some resistance from the warped frame, but to my surprise, it pushed open gently. Rows of splintering pews filled the sanctuary inside, washed in the moonlight that filtered in through the patchwork of holes in the roof. An old coat rack draped in tattered cloth leaned haphazardly against the pulpit looking like an otherworldly minister.

Framing both sides of the sanctuary were ornate stained glass windows that seemed almost to glow through the darkness inside. The flashlight and crowbar tumbled from my hand as I shuffled forward in a trance. They were captivating.

On the left, nearest to the door was a scene of a young boy and a dog playing in front of the stream. It was Gilligan, my first pet. We played together every day after school until he was hit by a car.

Next to it was an image of me during a high school baseball game. The number 3 was emblazoned on the back of my jersey and a bat dangled from my right hand as I watched the ball soar through the air. It was the only homerun I ever hit and the coach screamed at me to run for home.

A third was of Rose and me beneath a concrete angel, kissing in the moonlight. Tears filled my eyes at the glass image of my wife, so young and beautiful in my arms. Happiness and sorrow swirled through my veins.


Casting my eyes to the other wall, the window farthest away showed me a vision of myself at the police academy graduation ceremony. I was young, thin, and so proud that day. Still so unaware of how that job would keep me away from the woman I loved.

In the center, two people sat on the tailgate of an old pickup smoking cigarettes. It was the perfect image of that very afternoon as I sat talking to Amber. The white glass of her smile glinted in my eyes. I hadn’t noticed her smile as we talked, but she must have. Some happy memory in her ocean of sadness had won over her for just a moment.

My eyes drifted to the floor for a moment as the buzz of tinnitus filled my ears. The next window would be the one to show me the future. I had hoped that much like Amber, I would be allowed to leave that wretched place, unlike so many others. Truly though, I feared the window would show me what had taken so many others before.

With a sigh of horror and resignation, I looked toward the sixth window.

There was an old man, a mop of white hair swept to the side, sitting on one of the church pews. Bright reds, yellows, and oranges came together to create a wall of flames behind him. Dark figures stood in the blaze, looking down at the forlorn man.

Looking down at me.

I turned and ran for the door and burst into the cool evening air and soothing moonlight. My heart thundered as my feet hammered against the ground toward my truck. Fumbling the keys from my pocket, I jumped in the seat and readied myself to get as far away from that dark place as I could.

Then I realized my hair had been white on the last window. It had shown me well into old age. Salt and pepper danced across my once dark mane, but it was far from white. The last window didn’t represent that day, but I felt in the pit of my soul that the horrible image would someday come to pass.

In a stupor, I got out of the truck and headed back to the bed. A dented red gas can sat near the toolbox and I pulled it over the edge. I wanted the madness to stop then and there. If Old Salem Church burnt that night, there would be no white-haired version of myself to burn there in the future. No more missing kids either.

I’d gladly pay whatever price came my way.

The gas soaked quickly into the dry wood of the church walls. I emptied the entire canister and tossed it inside. The loud clang when the metal hit the sagging wooden floors made me wince. Without another thought, I pulled Amber’s abandoned lighter from my pocket and struck the flint next to the wood.

Flames erupted quickly and I walked back to the truck and drove away. Reds, oranges, and yellows licked at the night sky in my rearview mirror. I laughed and then burst into tears.

It’s over, I told myself. No more disappearances. No future in the flames.

I wish I’d been right.

* * * * *

I spent the rest of the night drinking scotch by the police scanner in my garage. Chatter was minimal during that night. My anxiety increased with every passing minute as I waited to hear someone report the fire on Parkway #3 Road. It had been nearly midnight when I got home and by 3 AM there still hadn’t been a peep.

Part of me was relieved thinking that somehow no one from the parkway had seen the flames. Maybe it burnt so quickly that no one even saw it to call in. Even if it was reported, the blaze would have gone on so long there would be nothing of the structure to salvage.

Another part worried that the flames had gone out. I knew it was impossible, but still, I worried.

Sleep came hard in the early hours. As soon as I woke up, I turned the scanner volume up, but there was still no word of a fire in Crenshaw. My stomach sat heavy and a new sense of dread washed over my body.

I got in the truck and drove as quickly as I could to Parkway #3 Road and down the twisting drag. There were no fire trucks or emergency vehicles. No smoke. Only the line of trees blocking the view where the church would have stood.

Above the trees like a craning vulture, I saw the steeple of Old Salem Church; unburnt and waiting for new carrion

* * * * *

Whoever finds these pages, I just want you to understand what has happened to me. I burnt down Old Salem Church for the first time in 1995. It was standing in the same spot the next day as though nothing had happened at all. I felt insane, but I came to accept that the hateful place holds some terrible grip there. Something there hungers for the lives it snatches away.

I burnt it again five more times over the years, but no matter how much gas I pour or even if I stand there to watch that hellish frame crumble in on itself during the blaze, it’ll be standing again the next day. It seems indomitable. A bastion of despair and hopelessness.

My hair has long since gone white and I’m tired. Children still vanish in the area and each time it happens I slip a bit further into madness. No one listens to me when I beg them to demolish the place. County costs are too high, they say. Putting up a gated fence or sealing off the road is out of the budget.

Perhaps Old Salem gave me the answer though.

Maybe it just wants me.

I’ve watched the place burn five times standing on the gravel drive and once in the rearview mirror of my old truck. It never works. I’ve been going about it all wrong.

The sixth window showed me sitting inside, wreathed in flames. So I’ll give that vile building what it wants. There are six cans of gas in the truck and I plan to douse the whole place. I’ll sit inside and wait for those dark figures to watch me burn. Maybe that’ll be the end of all this.

If I’m gone tomorrow and Old Salem Church is still standing, God help you all.

I did what I could.

Credit: Ryan Major


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