Jimmy cleaned the last of the water spill in the cabinet base and packed up his tools. The old sink had needed a more extensive repair than he’d anticipated, the church’s plumbing truly starting to show its age, but he’d managed to patch it well enough to limp it along for a little while longer. He listed the parts he used and his time on the work order, but it was more for his own records than anything else. He never billed the church for repairs.
As he left the restroom, the door squeaked. He opened and closed it a few times, listening, and then set his tool box down. With a mallet and screwdriver, he popped out the offending hinge pin, cleaned it, and added a bit of chain lubricant. When he tested the door again, it was silent.
If only his mind could be as easy to silence. Squirt on a little lube, shut it the fuck up. Johnnie Walker worked, sometimes, but only for a night.
He repacked his toolbox and lifted its heavy weight in his left hand. As he walked the narrow hallway leading to the exit near the sanctuary, the fingertips of his right hand brushed along the wall, an old childhood habit he didn’t resist. The horsehair plaster was cool to the touch, uneven and heavily painted. His fingertips bumped over cracks, dipped into craters, the path foreign. He stood a good foot taller now than he had the last time his hand had traveled the wall. His stride stretched longer. It didn’t feel the same, the comfort he sought no longer achievable. He dropped his hand, and continued without reaching.
In the archway of the narthex, he paused and looked toward the sanctuary on his right, where Dan and Stacy’s wedding would be held in a few days’ time. The afternoon was bright, but except for where the sunlight played in rainbows through the stained glass, the sanctuary remained shrouded in shadow. The church was the oldest in Allman Falls, gothic revival in design. Cherry paneling covered the walls. Ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The pews could hold a hundred people, twice that if they didn’t mind packing in, and they had on many a Christmas Eve of past. He wondered if they still did.
After a moment of hesitation, he set his toolbox down and stepped inside. The air smelled cleaner than he remembered, free of the perfume of flowers and women, the cigarette smoke clinging to the jackets of men, but it still carried the comfort of lemon oil and sweet sage.
He slid into the pew on the left-hand side, second from the back, and slowly inched his way down to the other end, close to the wall. The wood creaked as he remembered it to, its moan welcoming, flooding him with fifteen years of old memories. He placed his hands on the pew in front of him and closed his eyes, sitting without moving, without breathing.
He waited for the once familiar feelings to wash over him, for the weary weight pressing down upon him to lighten, for the cold, echoing emptiness that filled him, surrounded him, to be flooded with warmth. But it did not come.
He sat. Eyes closed. Mind blank. Waiting for the hollow ache in his chest to ease, even the slightest bit.
He felt nothing, except more pain.
He heard nothing, except the screaming of his own mind.
About his father. Brayden. What he’d lost.
Always, about Ky.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I last saw you sitting there on a Sunday morning?”
Startled, Jimmy turned, and watched as Pastor Tom settled into the pew behind him.
“Eleven years,” Pastor Tom said, answering his own question.
Jimmy removed his ball cap from his head, set it on his knee. He picked at the stitches with his thumb. “I’ve been busy…”
“I know you have,” Pastor Tom said, mercifully accepting, allowing the silence to return to the room.
Eleven years of Sundays. More time had passed than he’d realized, but sometimes it felt even longer. Sometimes he forgot he had ever sat in the pew, feet dangling, his mother’s hand clamped onto his leg to still his fidgeting, a glare from his father silencing his whispering as the voice of Pastor Tom and the unifying Word of God washed over the congregation.
“Big wedding coming up this weekend.”
Jimmy drew in a breath, fighting against the pressing weight in his chest.
“I hear from Brent Kylie’s coming home to attend.”
Jimmy scrubbed his hands down his face, over the stubble he hadn’t bothered to shave in a few days, rubbing his dry eyes, still bloodshot from the whiskey and long hours hanging drywall the night before. Every bone in his body ached, his muscles stretched tight from exhaustion, his stomach sour from forgetting to eat.
God, he missed her.
“Will I see you here as well?”
“I don’t know.” It would kill him to watch her leave again, but not seeing her would be even worse. Not seeing Brayden would be living death.
“Have you prayed about it?”
Jimmy bit back a bitter laugh and looked toward the front of the sanctuary, to the pew where he’d sat the last time he could remember attending a service. His parents had been to his right, his brother to the left. Dan and Janice Handley in the pew in front of him. Pastor Tom at the pulpit. Rich Handley in the coffin. The day everything changed.
If he closed his eyes, he could hear his mother’s beautifully haunting voice singing solo, “Lead, Kindly Light.”
Dan buried his mother five years later, but she had died the moment Rich drew his last breath. Jimmy had seen it in her dry, vacant eyes, her spirit already slipped away, gone in search of the life that had been ripped from her. A shadow of the same death had haunted his father’s eyes for the rest of his life, the cruelty of loving someone reflected in the agony of living without them.
“It’s still there.”
“What’s still there?” Jimmy asked, though he knew.
With reservation, Jimmy slid the hymnal in front of him over in the rack, revealing the first half of his name, carved into the cherry wood long ago. He traced the letters, the lines no longer splintered and fresh. Aged by a buildup of wood oil, smoothed by the polishing of other’s hands, his former presence in the church nothing more than a shallow scar time threatened to erase.
He caressed the letters with his thumb. “I sat and stared at this every Sunday morning for years. My mom thought it was remorse…” He shook his head. “I just hated that I got caught before I could finish.”
“If I let you carve the rest, will you come back again?”
Jimmy traced the J. The I. The broken M. The unfinished remainder of who he had once been.
“I wish it were that simple.”
Pastor Tom reached over the back of the pew and set something beside him. “It can be.”
Against his will, Jimmy’s eyes drifted down to the folded Schrade Old Timer pocketknife lying on the bench of the pew, JWR scratched into the worn handle. The same knife he had used to carve his name all those years ago. His father’s knife.
“All this time, you’ve been searching for Someone who has never once left your side.”
Jimmy turned away from the falsehood, his eyes drifting past the pulpit, to the stained glass of the Good Shepherd, backlit by the sun, the colors bleeding into one. “He left me a long time ago.”
“Just because you can’t see Him doesn’t mean He’s not here. Ask Him to show Himself to you, and He will.”
“I’m sitting right here. Waiting. Where the hell is He?”
“You will seek Me and find Me…” Pastor Tom quoted from Jeremiah.
“When you seek Me with all your heart,” Jimmy finished. “I will be found by you…”
“I knew you already had the answer.”
Jimmy looked away from the stained glass, down to his rough, calloused hands. Ninety-eight days had passed since he had last felt Kylie’s skin beneath his fingertips, since he had last felt Brayden’s downy-soft hair. Ninety-eight days since he had last known how to breathe. “They’re just words.”
Instead of trying to persuade him otherwise, Pastor Tom stood to leave. His hand came to rest on Jimmy’s shoulder, squeezing tight before letting go.
“Why didn’t you do Dad’s funeral? You were there. You could have done it.”
“Because, for the first time in thirty-seven years, I needed to listen to the words instead of speak them.”
Jimmy closed his eyes, feeling them burn as he nodded, not understanding, but accepting his honesty.
“I pray I see you at the wedding on Saturday, but in case I don’t, have a blessed birthday, Jimmy.”
When Jimmy opened his eyes again, he was as alone in the sanctuary as he was everywhere, without even the sun shining to light his way.