The freezing rain intensified, like it had something personal against me. Not that I was underdressed; for a homeless man, I have to say that the sweatshirt underneath the old leather bomber jacket was more than warm enough. I suppose that the real irritant was the pelting droplets of ice mixed with the rain, and how they flew almost horizontally.
Scanning the surrounding urban environment, I spied the familiar outlines of an old church. I recalled from childhood how churches were left open at all hours to shelter the needy or provide prayer space. As I reached for the old ornate handle on the heavy wooden door, I questioned whether the uncertain world of the modern city had changed that custom.
I pulled, and the door swung open. It was as if the old church was welcoming me with open arms. I stepped quickly out of the entrance and off to the side. Old Army habits die hard; do not hesitate and silhouette yourself in a doorway. I paused to let my eyes adjust to the dim light. Finally I could make out the statues along both sides, framed in stain glass windows. In the pews to my left I could see two hunched figures, one sitting and another kneeling. To my right, I heard a low murmuring. A woman clad in black, kneeling with rosary beads in her hands.
I silently moved past her, down the center aisle. About halfway down, I stepped in to sit in the pew. I pulled the padded bar down to kneel, then decided to instead sit for a while. Not only was this a shelter from the freezing December rain; it was a welcome respite from the chaos of the last two months.
Gazing upon the dimly lighted altar and crucifix, I let my mind succumb to a kaleidoscope of images.
The shelter guards announcing, “Pack it up and come back after 5pm!” The old woman at the drugstore who had to wait 5 extra seconds for my purchases to be bagged and announced, “What, did someone rob a bank?” My long walks around Madison Square Garden, promising myself that I’d see some basketball and hockey games when my luck turned around again. And the heart wrenching moment from last night; a father and son at the shelter went to take a shower when I did. The little boy spied my dog tags and said, “Thanks for your service,” as his dad grinned approvingly. I said thanks, and turned quickly in to the stinging shower spray so the two of them could not see the effect it had on me.
Lost in thought in this church but feeling rather comfortable, my peripheral vision detected movement behind me and to my left. Realizing that I must have looked disheveled with exhaustion, I turned and looked with a polite smile. Passing close enough to touch were two young girls, dressed in religious robes. They seemed to be dressed for a ceremony. That would be fine, except there was no priest or clergy present.
The hair on the back of my hands to stand up. I realized they seemed to be gliding, rather than walking. Not only that, there was something incongruous about their appearance. Their heads only came up to the top of the pews, even though they appeared to be of adolescent age.
Almost as if she intended to add to the tension, the old woman with the rosary beads had become overwhelmed by emotion at the the exact moment the girls appeared. She began to vocalize in an incoherent and unnerving rant.
This unexpected mystery served to pique my interest and improve my morale. My recent bout of homelessness had me on the verge of depression, and any diversion was welcome. Another old military impulse made me check my watch. The luminous green digits informed me that the time was 18:03.
I leaned to the left to keep this perplexing vision in sight. Then I stood in the center aisle. The two girls disappeared around the corner to the right. I advanced toward the altar; close inspection of the front of the church revealed no trace of the visitors.
Someone was clearing their throat in a rough and rude manner. I realized that I was blocking the view of someone seated near the front. I continued parallel to the altar and strode towards the back, where the rosary holder was now quiet and kneeling with her head down.
I approached the pew and kneeled a few feet from her. Without opening her eyes, she turned her face in my direction. I had not wanted to alarm her; she seemed to be smiling slightly. She was perhaps seventy years old, slight of build, with dark hair streaked with gray. Her lips moved without her mouth being open, as if in silent prayer.
Keeping my voice low, I asked her if she had seen the girls walking down the aisle. She nodded without speaking. I carefully selected my words, not wanting to intrude, yet succumbing to my curiosity. Could she explain what just happened? Finally she opened her eyes. They were faded blue, almost gray.
She said her name was Madeline. She had been coming to this church since she was a little girl. When she was 10 years old, she and two other girls had volunteered for altar duties. Tiffany and Tracy were their names, both sisters. One day, Madeline was walking home with them when the girls remembered that they had left some of their things at the church. Madeline continued on, then waited for her friends to return when she got home. They lived with their parents in an adjoining brownstone building.
The sisters never returned that night. Madeline feared something evil had happened, yet the police never turned up anything.
Five years after the incident, the vision of the girls materialized for the first time. Madeline was conflicted at first, nearly hysterical. She loved her friends, but this confirmed what she had feared all along.
Questions flooded my mind. Did others see this as well? Was it such a common occurrence that churchgoers accepted it? Had Madeline been able to communicate with her deceased friends?
Madeline then confided in me that, this was a way of being reunited with her dear friends. It nearly broke my heart. I wanted to say or do something for Madeline. Unfortunately, I had no money to buy her a hot bowl of soup or some coffee. I gave her forearm a squeeze and made for the exit. Glancing at the altar one last time, I hit the street and started walking towards the shelter.
That night I managed to hold the morose feeling of the shelter at bay by turning the conundrum this way and that. I resolved to visit the library in the morning to do a little sleuthing.
As I slipped into the realm of sleep, my mind clung to the ghostly image of the two girls drifting down the aisle.
After a communal shelter breakfast served by two very old, very obese and very sweet ladies, I started walking in the direction of the New York Public Library. The weather that day was cold and overcast, yet with no precipitation to contend with. I sat on the steps, waiting for the 10am opening. I wasn’t alone. I recognized two other older men from the shelter, as well as two kids who might have been college students.
At one point, a mother with a stroller and two small kids walked by; she clutched both kids to her and gave me a paranoid look. Thanks, lady.
Promptly at 10, the doors opened and I joined the flow in to the library. I found that my visits here were a double edged sword; I could remember coming here as a child, and the images from the past could both comfort and depress me.
I found a public access computer and got to work. I recalled that Madeline had said the incident in question occurred when she was 10 years old. Guessing her to be about seventy, I selected a time frame for my search - circa 1955 to 1960.
As a starting point I simply typed “missing children-NYC” in to the search engine. I was not surprised by the wide selection of databases that populated the screen, from NYPD, to federal, to newspapers to private ventures run by volunteers. I selected the newspapers. I navigated through one of the largest outlets for an hour.
“No looking at porn on the public computer!” This from a tall, cadaverous looking old man with wire spectacles who worked in the library. I contemplated whacking him in the face-he was leaning over my right shoulder- but I simply pointed to the newspaper articles on the screen, then turned my palm upward in a questioning gesture. The old man nodded, although I suspected a trace of suspicion and turned and walked away. Weasel.
I ended up with three possibilities; the most promising involved the 1957 disappearance of two girls affiliated with the church. I read deeper and saw that the first names of the girls matched. The last name of the family was Henderson. The article-and others I uncovered with further review- told of how the police were keeping the file open as a cold case. However, after intense interviews of friends and family and local clergy, the prevailing theory was that the girls had met their demise at the hands of an interloper in the city.
I leaned back in the library chair and digested all of this. A sudden thought brought me forward again. How could I explain the odd elevation of the girls as they glided past me? I researched the history of the church. I read several articles that dealt with renovations done at that location in 1975. One entry even showed floor plans. The comparative layouts of old and new vied for my attention.
Then I saw it. The old floor of the church had been 1 to 2 feet below the current elevation of the floor (and center aisle) of the church.
When they glided past me, the mysterious girls had looked disproportionately short for their age and size.
They had been walking on the original floor.
This eerie discovery made my blood run cold. I decided to return to the church that night to watch for their return, and connect with Madeline.
My walk downtown was pleasant. My hands were warm inside of the bomber jacket. I enjoyed the smell of roasted peanuts, hot dogs and coffee emanating from the sidewalk vendors.
About two blocks from the church, I saw a large amount of law enforcement vehicles. There was crime scene tape around an office building within sight of the church. As I stood and watched, I saw a CSI van arrive, as two uniformed attendants were directed towards the basement level entry point of the building.
“Move along sir,” a large uniformed NYPD cop barked at me. “There is nothing to see here.” I moved.
My watch said it was about 17:30 when I entered the church. I saw Madeline kneeling towards the back, rosary beads in hand. She smiled as I sat down next to her.
I checked my watch and waited expectantly for a reappearance of the doomed girls. 18:05, then 18:10, then 18:15.
There was no sign of the vision from the night before.
Suddenly Madeline clamped a hand on my forearm. There were tears in her eyes.
“Someone confessed today from the old neighborhood. Sergio Barento. He was in the hospital and dying of cancer. He was the one who abducted the girls and ended their lives. I am praying for his tortured soul now.”
I recalled the crime scene that I had just passed. There was finally closure for everyone involved. I assumed there would be no more visions in the church from now on.
I emerged from the church and paused on the front steps. Inhaling the freezing December air, I squinted up at the muted winter sunlight that I always loved. The riddle was solved: Madeline felt closure, and the two girls could rest in peace now.
I exited the steps and started walking uptown. I wondered if I could find a new adventure to immerse myself in while I continued to struggle with homelessness.
Thank God for the city.