by Jennifer Lewis
For reasons she didn’t entirely care or attempt to understand, Lt. Elizabeth Callahan found herself driving south through the backroads of New Hope, Alabama towards something. Anything. The rising and falling throaty rumble of the 1972 Ford F-250 coughed and sputtered along the winding roads, its Dukes of Hazzard orange melding into the surrendering landscape of glittering gold poplars, scarlet dogwoods, and burnt sienna hickories. The cool air whistled as it forced its way through the crack in the top of the driver's window, stinging her cheeks and drying her eyes, but she continued to stare forward, focusing on nothing but the direction she was headed. Instinctively, she hit the dash with a persuasive smack, attempting to stir life into the heater, but it had stopped working long ago.
The truck came to a halt at the stop sign on the edge of the next town. Gazing into her rearview mirror, she could barely make out New Hope’s water tower above the tops of the trees, rusted and decayed by time and general disregard. She could hear the trickling of a nearby stream as the water rushed and collided against rocks and stones; it too, in search of something else.
She passed the sign welcoming her to Guntersville, its motto, “Sweet Home Alabama” a beacon of both tourist enticement and expected southern comfort. The truck continued to roll down the main thoroughfare, past the quaint brick boutiques, bakeries, and occasional hardware store. All New Hope had to offer was stretches of farmland with dilapidated houses, one gas station, a run-down Piggly Wiggly, and the church where God’s will was as respected and feared as her father’s. Despite the fire and brimstone image of her father at the pulpit rattling around in her brain, she turned off the road and pulled into the parking lot of a condemned church.
The Ford’s door opened with a rusty creak; its weight heavy on the hinges as she pushed it back into the body of the vintage orange beast. Smoothing out the wrinkles of her Marine Corps fatigues, she removed her hat as she felt the inescapable cold despair encompass her in the shadow of the towering steeple. The church perched atop a small hill, a historical marvel of gothic architecture in the south, nestled against the backdrop of the late autumn forest. It’s exterior, a mixture of wood-chipped planks and a dingy brick foundation, surely intended to be highlighted by the arched stained-glass windows, though most were now obscured in dust and grime, cracked, or boarded up—an aberration amidst the vigor of the town.
Upon reaching the threshold, Elizabeth noticed the door was propped open by a bucket, dried paint remnants having dripped down its side. A hand-painted banner that read “His Mercy Fell” hung clumsily above the frame, like one of those truck-stop breakfast places seen from the interstate, missing lights in its sign. She stood on her toes, stretching out the banner, exposing its full name — His Mercy Fellowship. Her lips tightened and curled inward as she let the banner drape back in a heap.
“Hello?” she asked, peering into the darkness of the open room. Waiting a moment for an answer, she let out a sigh of a relief, but could feel the clamminess presenting in her palms as she wrung her hands together.
The worship hall was in disarray; pews scattered and stacked haphazardly on top of each other, wires hanging from the ceiling where lights used to exist, a few buckets collecting unnerving drops of water falling from the eaves, walls splattered in fresh spackle, and a sawhorse in the center covered in tools and surrounded by shavings. The traditional crimson carpet, now almost black and weathered by the elements, gave off a musky aroma of rotted wood and mildew. Fetid and chaotic, the room gave Elizabeth a sense of peace and belonging— something her father’s church could not. She closed her eyes and breathed in the decay, inhaled her sin.
She followed the circular room around to the right, small rays of sunlight breaking their way through the cracks and boards on the windows. A box of miscellaneous second-hand bibles slumped against the wall, the books a crumbling tower of rubble. Bending down to pick one of them up, Elizabeth blew a coat of dust off its cover and watched the specks of dirt and dead skin hover in the ray of the light like an asteroid belt suspended in space but couldn’t help but think of the earth that lay on Matthew’s tiny coffin.
Bible still in hand, she walked over to one of the few upright pews and sat at the end. She hadn’t noticed the pulpit earlier, but it was the only thing clean and pure in that room; a small, recently-lacquered altar rested at its center adorned only with a book stand and cross. She swallowed hard, coughing to clear her throat as the air bubbled in her chest, burning her from the inside out.
“Hello?” a voice called out from a door in the front corner of the room. A young man emerged, wiping his hands on a towel before tossing it over his shoulder. Elizabeth stood up, startled by the intrusion.
“I-I’m sorry—the front door was cracked. I didn’t think anybody was here,” she said, smoothing her hair back, patting her bun at the nape of her neck and checking her watch.
The young man flipped on the work light to the right of the altar, brushed back his dark hair, and pushed the tortoise-shell glasses up on his nose. Stepping closer to get a better look, a familiar dimpled grin crossed his face.
“Well, I’ll be… Libby Ann Callahan,” he said, placing his hands on his hips in pleasant surprise and seeming disbelief. “God truly does work in mysterious ways.”
“Abbott? Abbot Montgomery?” The shock of finding her childhood friend amongst the shambles caught her off guard; yet she was neither excited nor displeased at this reunion.
Noticing her fatigues and name tag, Abbott suddenly felt obliged to honor her service with the proper decorum necessary of greeting an officer, and with an awkward stand-at-attention, saluted her. “Lieutenant Libby… Callahan. My apologies, ma’am.”
“Please,” she said, shaking her head and waving off his propriety, as if she was unworthy of such civility. “It’s fine.”
Abbott stood smiling in amazement for a moment, recalling his memories of a young girl with butter blond hair and Nordic blue eyes that could soften even the hardest of hearts. His smile melted with a slight droop, now realizing an older woman suffering and aged from life and grief stood before him. Still conventionally pretty, her hair, though slicked back, was a dull sandy brown and her eyes a foggy grey, vacant and lost.
“May I?” he asked, motioning to the spot beside her on the pew.
She nodded and sat down, smoothed out her jacket, and placed her hands in her lap.
“I would’ve cleaned the place if I knew to expect visitors,” he said, leaning towards her, his tone playful and upbeat, just like she’d remembered him.
She contrived the start of a smile with conscious effort, a facsimile of expected behavior, yet remained in a stasis of cold stoicism.
“Yeah, I’m fixin’ her up. Wanted a place where people could gather without…ehhh…” He sucked in air and squinted his face, searching for the right words.
“Persecution? Guilt? Fear?” Elizabeth offered with sarcasm.
“Actually...yeah. Well, you know; you lived it. The more I sat in that church growin’ up, the more terrified I was of… not just God and what the end had in store for me, but I was terrified to live outside of what had been burned into my skull. And I didn’t know how. So, after graduation, I left. Made some considerably bad choices in those first few years—”
“Don’t we all.”
He paused at the insinuative nature of her comment and nodded in agreement. “But I found my way. Now I’ve got this place. Non-denominational. Where people can come, experience community, and know God’s love, not his wrath.”
“You know my daddy’s rollin’ in his grave, right now.”
“God bless his soul. Minister Jeremiah Callahan,” Abbot reminisced, seething a bit at his recollection. “Come to think of it, pretty sure that’s the last time we saw each other, Libby.”
“Sorry… Elizabeth,” he corrected.
“But yeah,” she said, leaning her head back, staring at the coiled and shedding snakes hanging from the ceiling. Her lungs filled with air, before letting it out with a deliberately reserved sigh. She could feel the energy radiating from the cross on the alter; each pulse emitting a fiery wave of heat into her chest. “Daddy died in 2005. I came home from Afghanistan. Had all intentions of going back, but...” she twisted the simple gold band around her finger and shrugged, “I met a nice guy. Fell in love… had a baby.”
Her eyes darted toward the bible resting beside her. Abbot shifted uncomfortably in his seat, but his focus remained on Elizabeth. On her pain. On her need.
“Had a baby,” she whispered.
Without looking at Abbot, she continued. “Matthew.”
His name rolled off her tongue easier than she expected. She didn’t waver. Her voice didn’t crack; tears didn’t stream down her cheeks. Abbott stared at her, waiting in the room of the Lord, waiting for her to release the weight of her agony.
“He would’ve been six months old today.” She shook her head; memories and images rattling like a pinball in her brain. “He died three months ago. Doctor said it was ‘a tragic case of SIDS’… that, that there was ‘nothin’ we could’ve done’…that ‘it just happens sometimes.’”
Abbot paused and sat in the moment with Elizabeth, allowing her to bear her burden, willing to accept it as his own. He reached over and placed his hand over hers.
“And John, my husband, I dunno… he’s just buried himself in work. Goes in early. Stays late. We barely talk.”
“What about you, Lib—Elizabeth? Abbot asked, concerned.
She shrugged, sucking in her lower lip.
“I stare at an empty crib every morning. Every night. In the beginning, I prayed. All the time. Then, I started askin’, you know…” her eyebrows furrowed as she considered the myriad of conversations she had with God. “I asked, ‘Why, God? Why did you take my baby? What have I done to deserve your wrath?’”
Though her voice trailed off, it lingered with the pain only a mother could know. But it was more than that. Abbot could sense something deeper, something that had driven Elizabeth to this moment that they were now sharing.
“Elizabeth…I am so truly sorry for your loss…sometimes things…” He paused and squeezed her hand, but like a wounded animal who senses its predator, she recoiled from his grasp, clutching the edge of the pew with both hands as she leaned forward. The cross on the altar continued to focus its gaze as the heat in her chest spread to her extremities.
She snapped her neck around, eyes wide and enraged.
“Sometimes things what? Happen for a reason, Abbot?” she scoffed, anger boiling in the depths of her soul as the buried truth began to surface.
“I do believe God has a purpose, yes,” he said, his voice calm and steady.
She slammed her hand on the top of the pew, its splintered wood rough against her palm. But Abbot did not stir. “I’m the reason, Abbot! Me! There is no grand purpose. Matthew is dead because of me.” She held his confused gaze a moment, her breath heaving, before checking the time on her watch.
Abbott considered a bible verse, some words of wisdom, even an embrace, but none of these measures of comfort seemed appropriate. Elizabeth came to him by Fate and God’s grace, whether she believed it or not. Sitting with her and bearing witness was all he could do.
Elizabeth slumped back into the pew and picked up the tattered bible sitting next to her. She flipped through its wispy pages, touching their cool delicacy, but felt nothing. She closed the book and placed her hand on top, nodding her head, knowing the weight around her neck was still heavy. They sat in the silence only a moment before she spoke again. Abbot shifted in his seat and pushed his glasses up on his nose.
“Remember senior year?” she asked, quiet fear in her voice.
Cracking a smile, Abbot nodded. “How could I forget? I got suspended for running off with Coach Statham’s prosthetic leg and you won Butterbean Queen at the Fall Festival.” Seeing that his attempts to soothe her heartache failed, he added, “But, yeah. You signed up for the Marines after the Twin Towers fell.”
“Yeah. I left for bootcamp that summer and deployed to Afghanistan three months later.”
“I remember thinking that it was… uncharacteristic of you. But that was a somber time, for everyone. Hell, I left town,” Abbot said, brushing imaginary dust off his knee.
“I didn’t leave because of 9/11. It was just easier to explain.”
“Explain what?” he asked.
Elizabeth looked at Abbot, searching his face for some shred of escape, hoping there was a way he could take her sin without actually having to say it out loud. Her lip quivered as her eyes darted back and forth.
“It’s ok, Elizabeth. You can tell me.”
She swallowed hard, the pulsing heat of the cross unyielding.
“The beginning of senior year, I snuck out and went to Tommy Sasser’s kegger.”
Abbott tilted his head back with a reminiscent laugh. “Ah, I remember those.”
“It was the first time I ever did anything like that. But for once, I just wanted to do something fun, something normal teenagers did. I spent the first half of the night terrified my daddy would find out, knowin’ he’d have my hide. Guess that made it all the more excitin’,” she shrugged, her adolescent impulsiveness now clear in her adult wisdom.
Elizabeth took a deep breath, expelling years of guilt and shame. “I lost my virginity that night. Lost my innocence that night. I found out 10 weeks later I was pregnant. Southern cliché, right?” she said, shaking her head in disappointment. “Even worse, I was stupid enough to believe that boy would want to raise the baby with me,” she scoffed. “Anyway, you can imagine…minister’s daughter, pregnant?” her laugh nervous and self-depreciating. “It wasn’t long before I realized what I had to do. What other option did I have? So, I did it; had the abortion. Drove two hours to get it. Told Daddy I was spendin’ the night at a friend’s house.” She paused, remembering. “It was easier than I thought. But I was crushed. What did I do? I killed my baby. I prayed to God over and over and told him I’d pay for my sin. I begged him to give me another baby when I was older. When I was ready.”
Abbot placed his hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder.
“And would you believe it? He did. He gave me Matthew.” A yearning smile appeared, entwined with the fleeting memory of her baby boy before disappearing altogether. “Only to take him from me.” She shook her head and bit her lower lip. “He betrayed me. This God that everyone makes out to be all-forgiving and loving. He’s a cruel joke. I am “the cowardly,” “the faithless,” and “the detestable.”
She choked the lifeless Bible in her hands before standing up and continuing her confession. “I’ve been wracking my brain. What kind of God does this? I—I—I mean… I thought it was a punishment, you know? A fuck you, Elizabeth,” her voice heightened, a manic epiphany coming over her. “But he’s not there!” she howled, pointing at the ceiling, a single tear glistening down her cheek. “He’s not anywhere.”
She tossed the Bible at Abbot. “So, you can pray to your God, and lay your hands, and save the sad and desperate. But not me.”
Elizabeth walked toward the altar, pushing back the rays of heat from the cross, a shield of disbelief and contempt. She twisted the smooth golden ring off her finger with little effort and placed it on the altar before leaving the worship hall.
“‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’” Abbot called out to Elizabeth, as she stopped in the doorway. Without looking back, she opened the door, blocking the sunlight’s blinding rays as the decay hung stagnant in the church behind her.
About the author:
Jenny Lewis is an emerging writer with a B.A. in English & Literature from The University of Tampa and is preparing to query her debut novel, Everything is Fine. She is a happily married, stay-at-home mom to two fledgling adolescents and the best Labradoggo ever. When not writing or absorbed in existential crises, you can find her daydreaming of Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia, reading stories that keep her from sleeping, and sweating in the Florida humidity. She has work forthcoming in Karma Comes Before Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @WriteJennyWrite.