I recently participated in a PhD study, and one of the requirements was that I write a short story in a limited time, based on one of several writing prompts.
This was the prompt that I chose: Write a story that is set in a church, with the nearby roads closed due to bad weather.
What with it being Easter and all, I thought it might be a good day to share this one. In it, I wanted to stay away from any kind of revelation or Road to Damascus transformation. I didn’t want it to be about faith at all. Instead, I just wanted something small, a tiny shift, from emptiness, confusion, and anger, to the hope that can sometimes come from something as simple as shelter from a storm and a good night’s sleep.
After the Flood
I didn’t actually notice that it was a church when I ran up the stairs, tested the door and, finding it unlocked, slipped inside. It was just a building. Shelter from the storm, at least in the literal sense.
The worst storm I’d seen—winds gusting, roads washed out. My car was stranded just above the rising waters—hopefully high enough to keep it from floating off like on some nightmarish YouTube home video of a natural disaster. But I couldn’t be sure it was out of harm’s reach, mired in a muddy patch, such that I couldn’t even drive back up the steep hill to safety. When I saw the waters rising, I also realized I couldn’t wait it out in the car.
Once I’d slipped and skidded my way up to higher ground, I stood and watched for a few moments, despite the buffeting winds, and the sharp, intermittently blinding rain. I knew it was stupid, standing there, getting soaked, tensely watching to see if my car got carried off by the storm. But dammit, that car was my most valuable asset at the moment, and I really didn’t want to lose it–nor all the stuff I had packed into it.
The sound of the lightning and thunder, coming closer, summoned me out of my horrified trance of watching the waters creep ever higher, ever closer. Drenched, outdoors, on a hillside: not the best place to be in a storm.
I started climbing, as the rain became heavier still. My mind kept casting back to my car—but I couldn’t even see it anymore, when I turned to look back. Another flash of lightning told me to keep moving. A building loomed and I headed that way, bent over against the wind and rain, only risking the occasional glance at the structure.
And so, it was only as I stood in the foyer, dripping, and trying to get my bearings, that I realized I was standing in a church.
Interesting. It had been a while.
The décor was relatively simple—a marked contrast to the opulent grandeur of the Catholic Church from my childhood. This place was simple, bare, the interior marked by an almost ad hoc quality, with threadbare, institutional carpeting on the floor, a rickety-looking leaflet stand to my left, and a similarly ramshackle metal coat rack adorned only with a cluster of metal hangers, some bare, some with the triangle part covered in paper advertorials for dry-cleaners.
I wasn’t sure of the precise denomination—for some reason, I couldn’t seem to make out any signs, which was surprising—you’d think that would have been a priority. Still, it must be on the liberal end, given the prominent placement of a rainbow flag near the entry doors to the chapel.
I also noticed an absence of crosses. There was the outline of a candle flame, suspended above what looked like a dessert cup, both in beaten copper, just to the right of the entrance.
Once my dripping had subsided somewhat, I stepped off the entry mat and into the foyer, walking towards the doors that led to the church proper.
Despite the obvious differences, the mere sensation of being in a church took me back to my distant childhood, when my grandparents would make me don my powder blue suit, whose scratchy, polyester pants made it difficult to sit still. They’d clip on the tie that rarely made it through service without being knocked askew or removed completely, and lace me into squeaky shoes that pinched each time I walked. I’d sit through services that to me embodied the very sufferings the priest evoked from the pulpit—a purgatory of boredom, stuffy, sweat-tinged air, dusty hymnals, and hard benches, with the yearned-for joys of a sunny day beckoning from beyond the statues of tortured saints, the stone walls, and the stained glass windows.
I had stopped believing in god at about the same time I stopped believing in Santa. I don’t think this was a coincidence. Still, there weren’t any obvious connections between the two disbeliefs—I think I was just at the age where I was starting to become aware of the absurdity of existence, and conceptions of god just didn’t fit with my ever-evolving sense of reality.
Nor did I find that I particularly missed god—though I did miss faith. I missed the comfort of believing in something. It didn’t matter if that something happened to be deity, the flying spaghetti monster or Santa. I suspect it was just that I missed believing in a sense of underlying order—something that spoke to a larger, intentional pattern to existence, beyond that of random happenstance, trial and error, monkeys and typewriters.
I pushed open the doors and entered the chapel, as lightning flashed beyond the plain, long windows that lined the walls of the room. Again, the décor was simple to the point of austerity, particularly in contrast to what I associated with the church experience. Even more puzzling was the absence of images of the tortured Christ—or maybe that was more of a RC thing? But here, there were no images of Christ at all. Just another outline of the cup-shaped candleholder with a lick of flame above its lip, painted on the podium at the front, and nearby, a three-dimensional version of it as an actual candle holder.
I can’t say I was overwhelmed with a feeling of sudden peace, or of serenity, or any other such thing. But I did feel oddly safe and sheltered, as I took off my coat and set it on the ground, before seating myself in one of the padded pews—the one break from austerity in the interior. Here I was, under cover and warming up slowly, while the rain lashed, the thunder roared, the lightning flared beyond. Thoughts of my car, and the ever-rising, ever-encroaching waters, flashed back into my mind, this time accompanied by biblical associations with floodwaters and the cleansing of the earth.
A weariness settled over me. I had been driving a long time. Too damn long. It felt like it had been forever, since I’d packed up my car, the anger roiling in me at the carelessness with which she’d left it all—all my stuff—in boxes at the curb like so much junk for the garbage collectors. I’d told her I was coming to pick it up—I just hadn’t quite managed to find the time to actually do it.
I sighed, too tired to feel anything more than a distant residue of annoyance as I thought back to those moments: the sweat dripping down my back in the still, summertime heat, as I tried to fit the boxes into my compact car, and nothing quite stacked properly—like some kind of puzzle devised in Hell. And I just kept getting angrier and angrier, as I shoved it all in with increasing force and diminishing care.
I guess I kind of lost it after that. I started driving. Just driving. Stopped for gas a few times, and grabbed some strange convenience food along the way—always those peculiar edibles that you never find in any normal food stores. It’s like a subset of hot food that only exists in the kiosks attached to gas stations. At some point, I pulled over to sleep for a couple of hours. Then I drove some more.
The storm, when it arrived, felt unexpected, intrusive. I just wanted to drive, but the weather kept getting worse and worse. I’d slowed to a crawl on the downhill, then stopped when I’d seen the low, rustic bridge flooded over, swaying, starting to buckle just a little. When I’d tried to turn around, I’d tipped off the road, and the car’s wheels had gotten stuck in the deep, soft mud. Game over.
Damn, but I was tired. I stretched out on the padded pew. I’d just close my eyes for a moment or two. Just until the storm lessened.
I woke to find a note on the seat beside me.
“We didn’t want to disturb you—it looks like you needed the rest. There’s food in the fridge downstairs. Help yourself to as much as you need. Give me a call on the church phone when you’re done, and I’ll come lock up. In peace—Rev. Andrea.”
The storm had subsided by then. The sun was out, and the world beyond the plain glass windows looked clean, fresh-washed. Reborn.
There were apples in the fridge—I chuckled at the irony—as well as some kind of wheat crackers and cheese. I had a few, and took an apple for the road.
After calling the minister and leaving a message on her voicemail, I set out into the day, feeling strangely refreshed, even as I dreaded what I might find—and worse, what I might have lost.
The waters had already retreated—but the bridge was gone. So was my car, I noted with a sense of incredulity, even though this was precisely what I’d been fearing all along. Incredulity, but then… nothing. I frowned.
I thought I’d be devastated—but instead, I felt oddly calm. Lightened, somehow.
All that stuff—my stuff, the things that demarcated how I defined myself—had been in that car, and now it was gone. No doubt, I’d find it somewhere down the way, but presumably much of what was in there would be floodwater-damaged beyond recognition. And somehow, I wasn’t upset. I didn’t care.
The reckoning would come later, I knew. But for now, I stood in the sunlight, grinning in spite of myself, enjoying the sensation of warmth on my skin. For now, it was just me, alone in the fresh-washed, sunlit world.