Matt was not running away.
His 1967 midnight-blue Camaro was tearing down the interstate like a drag-racer on speed, and Matt was clutching the wheel with two white-knuckled hands. There was one change of clothes and no clean underwear in the plastic grocery sack in the back seat. It was three in the morning, and he’d even left his toothbrush behind. However, Matt was not running away. Men did not run from their troubles. But sometimes a man had to get away for a while to get some perspective. Matt was just taking a weekend road trip to visit his grandparents. And why shouldn’t he? It was summer, school was out, he had a couple of days off work, and he hadn’t seen Grandma and Grandpa Hall in almost two years. They were getting old; he had to spend as much time with them as he could while he could.
He was not running away.
But somehow, although the bitch was the furthest thing from his mind, he couldn’t stop brooding about the issue she’d thrown in his lap. Was she really pregnant? Was it even his? Damn her. Dad was right; women were like burrs. Once one got a hold of you, she didn’t let go until you beat her off.
And those goddam crocodile tears, trying to make him feel guilty. Matt, you said you loved me, Matt you promised this wouldn’t happen, Matt this and Matt that and blah blah blah. Didn’t she know that all men lied to get sex? What the fuck? How could she have been so damn stupid?
One thing was for sure, he was not paying child support. He’d help her out with the doctor bills if she decided to wise up and get rid of it, but that was all he was obligated to do. Women were the ones with the pills and the creams and all that weird contraceptive crap; that made it her problem. Ten minutes of passion was not going to cost him a lifetime in paychecks.
This brooding and fuming kept Matt awake and alert through Springfield and most of the way to Rolla. Then the drive started getting interesting, with the turns and hills and bends in the road. Matt felt himself start to relax as he navigated the tricky highway. He was almost home. Jan Esposito could kiss his ass, he was going home.
With his new feeling of relaxation came a deep weariness. He’d been awake for almost twenty-four hours now, ever since the fight with Jan. Maybe he should have gotten some sleep before hitting the road, but what the hell, he’d needed to get out. Not that he was running away, a real man ran from nothing. But he just needed some space from the clingy bitch, and some time to think. Right now he was thinking that he needed a cup of coffee. His throat was dry and gritty, and his eyes felt as though they were made of concrete.
A lit sign flickered on his left. Stark white, with black letters. Souls’ Harbor, it read.
Weird name for a restaurant, if that was what it was. Matt blinked several times and slowed down for a closer look. The building was white and shaped like an old-fashioned schoolhouse. There was a black cross above the door.
Oh, a church. Matt’s foot went for the gas, then paused. He didn’t have any use for that tired Jesus crap, but he really needed a rest break. These places were open 24-7 down here in Bible-land, and sometimes you got free stuff. If they had a Mr. Coffee, he’d fake a prayer or two. If nothing else, he could take a quick nap in the parking lot.
Matt pulled into the empty parking lot and hauled his tired butt out of the car. He felt bad for the Camaro, being driven so long and hard. He’d promised her when he finished restoring her that she’d live the life of a creampuff from that day on. Poor baby, none of this was her fault. He mentally promised her a full tank of premium at his next gas stop.
The doors of the church were dark brown and carved with images of hellfire and brimstone. Tortured human faces screamed as dark flames ate at them, and devil-shapes leered and fornicated around the doorway. Charming. Matt pulled on the door, and it creaked open reluctantly. There were lights on inside, and Matt felt a pang of apprehension. He felt twelve years old again, slipping through those heavy, forbidding doors and into the house of God. The house of God, peopled by old bags and hypocrites, he reminded himself. If there really was a God, Matt thought, he’d blow all these damn places sky-high for all the ignorance and hate that went on. Dad had been a racist drunk, but he’d been right about one thing: people were scum, and mouthing a few prayers didn’t change human nature.
The temperature inside the church was very warm, and it smelled like hot wax. Matt looked to the altar and saw why; there had to be hundreds of candles lit up there. Candles lined the walls as well; what he had taken for dim electric light was actually endless rows of candlelight. There were murmuring voices all around him, and Matt saw to his surprise that the pews were all packed tight with people. Their heads were all bowed in prayer: some silent, some whispering or muttering to themselves. Matt looked around awkwardly. This was not what he’d had in mind. He’d thought he’d come in, take a quick nap in the back, and maybe weasel a cup of coffee or a doughnut out of the resident preacher. They were suckers for helping travelers; it was in the Bible.
Hadn’t the parking lot been empty? Maybe they all walked here together. It might be a weirdo cult-type group that didn’t allow luxuries like cars. The Amish were like that, maybe these people were Amish. Would they still have coffee? Matt felt more tired than ever, and there didn’t even seem to be any place to sit. The church looked bigger from the inside than it had from the parking lot. There were a hundred or more pews, all of them full. Men, women, even a few children, all dressed in black, all praying fervently. What were children doing at church at three-thirty in the morning, and why weren’t they yelling and roughhousing the way kids were supposed to? Matt looked around, but he didn’t see a preacher anywhere. Maybe it was some sort of silent meditation time, a chance for the preacher to take a break and pee in the middle of his sermon. Matt was aware of his ragged t-shirt and jeans, a sharp contrast to the sober formalwear of the churchgoers. Matt really wanted to turn and leave, but he was so damn tired, he was afraid to start driving again. He hadn’t poured thousands of dollars into that Camaro just to kill her.
After a few minutes of embarrassed slinking up and down the aisles, ignored by the congregation, Matt found an open spot on the left hand side, about four rows from the front. The old man he sat down next to was hunched over so far that Matt could see none of his face. His hair, what there was of it, was thin and grey. Matt heard his raspy voice murmuring softly as he prayed.
“Excuse me,” Matt said in a low tone. “I didn’t realize there was a service going on. I just wanted to take a break. Is that okay, or should I leave?”
The old man paused in his prayer, but he did not lift his head. “No, I suppose it’s all right,” he said in that same rasping, rusty voice. He sounded as though he’d been praying for hours, or maybe days. “If you weren’t welcome, you would not have been allowed in. Resting from the road is what Souls’ Harbor is all about.”
“What sort of church is this?” Matt asked, conscious of the fact that he was the only person in the congregation with his head up. “Are you Catholics, Protestants, or what?”
“Everyone comes here,” the old man rasped. His voice sounded terrible, as though he had laryngitis or bronchitis or even lung cancer, who knew. “All come, and all are welcome. Almost all. It’s just a little spot on the map where folks come to rest during a long journey. Rest, and pray for guidance.”
At last the old man straightened and looked Matt in the eye. His face was careworn and unshaven, and his eyes were a bright, mad blue. “It’s odd to see you in here, though,” he wheezed. “You look like the sort who would drive straight through without stopping.”
“I usually do,” Matt agreed. “But I got so tired, I was hoping to take a break and maybe get a cup of coffee, if there’s any around. Is there?” Or communion wine or Kool-Aid or anything that would give him an excuse to get up and away from the crazy old guy with the scary-weird eyes.
“Afraid not, son.” The old man grinned. His teeth were white, and his eyes were insane. “Refreshments come after the service, and that’s a long ways off. But you can sit and pray with me. For as long as you want.”
“Um, okay.” Matt did not want to sit there and he did not want to pray. But he was still bone-tired, and his sore ass did not want to get back into the car. Maybe he could fake a prayer and take a quick nap before getting the hell out of here.
Matt crossed his hands in his lap and looked down at his shoes. Torn-up Converses, cheap-ass shoes, but they looked pretty cool messed up like that. Just like the rest of him, wild and free. Let’s see… Our father, who art in heaven, Jesus Christ why didn’t they just say “is”? Couldn’t they update the lingo every century or so so people like him knew what they were saying? Our father, who art in heaven, hollowed be thy name? Now what did that mean?
“You know, I really am surprised to see you here,” the old man remarked, interrupting Matt’s attempts at piety. His voice was sounding a little livelier, but it was still harsh and rasping. Like a wheezy old dog trying to bark.
“Why, do we know each other?” Matt asked. He tried to meet the old man’s eyes without flinching, with limited success.
“Not really, but I know of you. We’re from the same neck of the woods, so to speak, and word gets around. But I was expecting a young woman to arrive shortly. That’s who I thought was sitting down, at first, until you spoke. That young woman and her baby.”
“Oh--I’m sorry. Should I find another seat?”
“No, no, there probably aren’t any more seats. And somehow I don’t think she’s coming now. You are certainly welcome to take her place. The Preacher will be pleased.”
“What—does he not like crying babies in his services?” Something about this church wasn’t right. Churches were not supposed to be packed with people in the middle of the night, it was not supposed to be this damn hot in here. Matt was almost sweating. Why were there so many candles in here?
“You could say that.” The old man grinned again, and Matt almost cringed. This guy was not playing with a full deck. He’d better get out of here; there would be other places to rest. “I think he’d rather see someone like you in here than a busy young woman with a child, a young woman with so much to do and so much to live for. And by the way, you’re wrong. There are no other places to rest along the way. Once you leave this place, it’s nonstop the whole way down. Or up. But usually it’s down.”
Matt’s blood froze. “What?” he said roughly. “What does that mean?”
“Why, exactly what it sounded like!” The old man’s voice was harsh and unpleasant. “Haven’t you figured it out yet? The name on the sign was a dead giveaway, if you’ll pardon the pun!”
“No,” Matt said. He stood up and looked at the door. It seemed just as tall and forbidding from this side as it had from the other. But Matt didn’t care. Tired or not, he was out of this nuthouse. “No fucking way. You’re crazy.” He started for the door. The old man watched him go with that same insane grin. The rest of the congregation went on praying, oblivious.
Matt shoved the door, but it would not budge. He backed up several paces and slammed into it, football player-style, and it swung open an inch or two before slamming shut again. There must be someone on the other side, Matt thought wildly, keeping him in. He wanted out! It was too fucking hot in here, Matt was really sweating. He slammed into the door a second time, and once again it opened just a crack before shutting again. In the instant that the door was open, Matt saw a female figure, head down, trotting toward the church. There was a wrapped bundle in her arms. A young woman with a child.
“Hey!” he shouted. He slammed the door again, praying to God that she could hear him before reaching the door. Somehow he knew that once she touched those heavy doors with their graven images of hell, it was all over. “Hey lady, get out of here! It’s a trap! Go back where you came from!”
The door opened briefly once again, and Matt saw her hesitate on the walk. “Please!” he yelled. “Go back! This is no place to bring a kid! Go back!”
He stopped hitting the door. His breath was ragged and painful in his chest, and his fists and shoulders ached. “Please,” he whimpered. “Oh, please.”
A hard hand touched his shoulder. Matt screamed and spun around to see a young man with a pale, earnest face standing there. His robes were black, and there was a white collar about his neck. His eyes were much older than his face. Matt felt as though he could fall into the Preacher's eyes. “It will be all right,” the Preacher said. “It could have been worse, you know. You almost didn’t stop; you almost went straight to Hell. But here, at least, you have a chance. Come and pray with us. I’ll get you a hymnal.”
Matt allowed himself to be led back to his seat. The old man was praying and did not look up.
Jan hesitated, razor in hand. The house was silent, the only sound the deep drip-drip of her blood flowing into the bathtub. She had picked tonight to do it because Mom and Dad would be at the bars, drinking away whatever they’d won playing bingo at church earlier in the evening, and there would be no one around to interrupt her. The pregnancy test with its two damning pink lines lay on the sink, her only suicide note. All was peaceful, and soon Jan herself would be at peace.
All the same, she thought she’d heard a voice. Matt’s voice? It had sounded like Matt, but that wasn’t likely. She hadn’t heard from him since their fight about the baby, almost two days ago. That was when she’d made up her mind to do this.
Jan looked down at her belly, still flat so far. Was she doing the right thing? Yes, she answered herself, making another shallow cut. The baby’s own father wanted it dead. She would be doing the child no favors, bringing it into this world where parents told their children that they weren’t good enough and beat the shit out of them and then went to church and prayed and got all forgiven and holy again. A world where men told tales of love and forever and then vanished before the come was dry on the sheets. They were all going to hell anyway, she might as well take a shortcut. She smiled mirthlessly at the pun and cut her wrist again. Shallow, so far. No major arteries severed. So far. She was working herself up to the major cut, the slice up to her elbow that would open her whole arm and end all this.
“Go back!” someone cried faintly. Where was that coming from? It really sounded a lot like Matt.
“This is no place to bring a kid! Go back!”
It was Matt! He’d come back! Jan hauled herself out of the tub, heedless of the water and blood she was dripping all over the tiny bathroom. Maybe he’d changed his mind, maybe he did love her!
“Oh, please…” Now the voice was a dying whimper. Where was it coming from? She wrapped a towel hastily around herself and tiptoed into the living room, leaving slippery wet footprints behind her.
There was nobody about. Jan hesitated, unsure. She shifted from one foot to the other. Water and blood dripped onto the hardwood floor.
The telephone rang harshly, and Jan jumped. She hadn’t thought to unplug it. After three rings, Jan decided to answer it. Maybe it was Matt, or someone who knew where he was. It couldn’t be a bill collector, not at this hour of the night. Or morning; Jan had no idea what time it was.
“Hello, is this Jan?” A woman’s voice. An old woman.
“Yes, who is this?” Jan was puzzled. This wasn’t her mother, this was nobody she knew.
“Are you Jan Esposito, Matt’s lady friend?”
“I guess you could say that. Who is this?”
“Well, I’m sorry to call you at such an hour, but I thought you’d best hear it from a person rather than see it on the news. Matt was coming to see Grandpa and me, and there was an accident, about an hour away from our house. I got the news right away because the officer on the scene is a friend of ours from church. They say he must have fallen asleep at the wheel, and he drifted into oncoming traffic. It was a terrible wreck, but the other fella wasn’t hurt too bad, and Officer Carr said Matt didn’t suffer. He’s with the Lord Jesus now, dear. I’m so sorry.”
Jan was numb. Matt—dead? But she’d just heard his voice. Hadn’t she?
“Dear? Jan honey? Are you still there?”
“Yes. I’m here. Did—did Matt ever tell you anything about—us? About me or about why he was coming to see you?”
“No, honey, he didn’t say much. Just that he was coming for a few days. Why? Did something happen? Are you all right?”
“I’m all right.” Jan looked at her wrist. Still bleeding, slowly. Better get a bandage on that. Go back, he’d said. This is no place to bring a kid.
“I’ll be fine,” Jan said. “Really. I’ll be okay.”
Also appears in:
need editor approval to submit