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The Sanctuary

She always prayed with her eyes open, just in case she would miss some divine presence working wonders amongst the frail corpses glued to the pews. Charlie never closed her eyes. It never really bothered anybody (because all those praying had their eyes closed anyway), but she still felt a pang of guilt, eyeing every deep mind in meditation. Was it some unpardonable sin? How is one supposed to seek with his eyes open? It was a question that had plagued Charlie for seventy five years. And so, like many questions do, they sink into the creases of the mind, fading and shrinking, but never dying. So naturally, one weary, droning Sunday Ms. Charlie decided to leave the church. She stared at Pastor Covent, his hands shaking, as his accordion skin sagged with folded, wrinkled splotches. Life was getting old. After all, it had been seventy five years.

Seventy five years. Seventy five years of strolling each aisle and pew, seeking the same seat, the flicker of a candle, the breaking of the bread, the sipping of the wine, the methodical kneeling (not that Charlie could kneel anymore). But she knew, in her heart, her mind, and her soul (whatever her soul was) that she was dying. The breaths which she once took for granted slowly began to wheeze and stretch their way through her lungs. Her hair was grayed and peppered, so smoothly resistant to the stench of the perms of her peers. The suits shivered and the stale breaths and chunky coughs disrupted the sanctuary. The smell of death prevailed, and every ancient soul flocked to the sanctuary as they did their childhood: clinging to the once so plentiful hope they were born into.
The lights dimmed as the pastor
lit the candle, sparking a memory in Charlie's mind. It took her back to a time when life was simpler, when her mother used to curl her golden hair and brush her olive green dress stiffly.

"Charlie," her mother ordered, huffing out the candle, "It's time for you to go to church ... you have Sunday school ... you need to do your duty to the Lord."

They left for the church. Since father was gone (he left long ago with a black suitcase, never to return) Charlie and her mother had little money for a car, and so they walked to church every Sunday.

Her mother, as Charlie remembered, was frail and thin, her spiraling red curls and sharp cheekbones piercing her pale face. It was she who taught Charlie the love -- and fear, of God.

Charlie grasped her mother's bony fingers , as the icy breeze stung their faces.

"Momma?" questioned Charlie, "Why does God make us walk in the cold, and why doesn't Daddy come with us?"

Her mother's face was as frozen as the icy streets. She did not utter a word. Charlie felt the water swell in her eyes, whether it was from the freezing wind, she did not know.

"Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in his commands!" echoed a booming voice across the sanctuary. Charlie shook from her dazed memory, and placed her wrinkled hands in her lap. Mother was gone -- a long time, and there was no need for memories that would never return. Charlie had to leave. A stifling pain in her heart rose as she dug her wrinkled fingers into the velvet pew. And there they were again, those memories, floating in her head, consuming her, as she relaxed again.

"Charlie!" A smooth voice whispered across the schoolyard. For the thousandth time, she would not allow it. All those boys at the high school bothered her, and every time she decided to turn around, it was a teasing remark, only to make her roll her eyes and come home with tears. But the voice persisted.

"Charlie!" She swung her golden curls, squeezing the stack of books to her chest, and shut her eyes.

"Open your eyes, first of all."
When she finally opened her eyes, she could not help but be disappointed. It was just Thomas, the belfry boy -- the ringer of the church bell. His thin smile made her heart sink. She hated him. He looked like her father.
She stared at him lamentably, trying to keep composure.

"Well," he spoke assertively, "I was wondering if you wanted to go to church with me on Sunday."
Charlie rolled her eyes and suppressed a smile.

"Of course, I go every Sunday ... you know that!" She raised her head again as a gust of wind hurled against the sanctuary, causing the dim lights to flicker.

"And God is with us!" boomed the pastor. Charlie slipped her satin shoe across the other, and pressed her faded face against her palms. Her shoulders bent with arthritis, and her knees throbbed dully. It was the memories; they were painful.

The last of the summer of '42 was fading and Charlie wrapped her bare arms around her torso, trying to quiet the chill. The cars chugged dutifully across the street, the radios buzzed, of war, and the jazzy strains lingered. The oily puddles sat stagnant in the road and her heart sank with them. She was older now. Mother was in her bedroom, frazzled and lazy, dampening her forehead with warm washcloths and Saturday Evening Posts. It was a contagious sickness, loneliness, and her mother had given it quite lavishly to Charlie lately. Was it the war?
Charlie was alone, for the first time. And the only things she knew were walking and church, so that is where she went. It was Saturday, but church was not far away. The air seemed almost tolerable. She had to walk that thought off her mind. Thomas. She had to talk with him almost daily: the belfry boy she so loved and despised all those years. It was now eighteen years she had weathered, and she could not handle another departure without closure. His blind ignorance was painful, and Charlie wondered if he even knew how much he meant to her. The little bursts of hope warmed her mind. Maybe she would find him at the steps of the sanctuary, watching the black, frail crows perch themselves on the tower. She could feel Thomas there, always at the church; it breathed his breath. She needed to find him. At least she would try.
Charlie walked, and reached the brick steps of the church tower. She heard the secluded echoes and the whispering winds. And there he was, standing but looking below. Her heart rose.

"Thomas?" she faintly cried, in a failed attempt of confidence, "I knew it!"

He looked down at her frail, thin frame. She looked like her mother, her curls pinned up tight, her pale, blushed skin shivering.

"Come on up!" Thomas exclaimed, startled, his voice disturbing the birds and echoing through the tower.

She walked up the steps and faced him. His icy eyes focused into view, and his faint frown lingered.

"I know what is wrong, Thomas mumbled, "And you, thankfully, don't have to tell me!"

Charlie stared at her feet silently, closing her eyes.

"It's the war, isn't it?" she asked.

He smiled his arrogant, devilish smile.

"Ring the bell, one last time before we go," he replied.

Charlie opened her eyes.
"And now, let us pray," droned the pastor.

It was time.

Charlie stared in agony, as the frozen heads bowed and shut their eyes. She felt the heat rising in her body, the pain in her chest ballooning, her breathing tighter. She dug her ancient toes into the satin of her shoes and clutched the pews tightly. What a sad, pathetic way to leave, she knew, but it was time.
As she stood from the pew, her eyes were fiery. She clutched the cane and it felt the weakness in her knees, her toothpick legs crumbling beneath her. Her heart fell. She braced for the fall of the wooden floor, the instant grave of the aisle.
And suddenly, the prayer ceased.
Every eye opened.



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