The street lights flickered in the pitch black and John watched his breath mist in front of him. He’d been walking for… well, he didn’t know how long for. He was sure that it had been light when he’d started though. Hours, it had probably been. Not that it mattered.
He stopped and tilted his head back, and his neck cricked at the movement. Hours spent staring at his own feet. Pretty much the story of his life these days. There weren’t any stars overhead, just clouds. Nothing worth looking up for.
No more faces to see.
John took a deep, shuddering breath. Weeks ago it would’ve been a breath followed by tears, but the tears had long since dried up. Most days he wished the breath would to.
As he looked up he felt the first splashes of rain on his face.
“Drat,” he said, half-heartedly. He knew deep down that getting wet wouldn’t matter, but old habits are hard to shake. In a daze he turned around, seeing where he was for the first time. It wasn’t somewhere he recognised. The houses were posh, large and set well back from the road. Definitely not anywhere near his house then. They also looked like the sort of places that wouldn’t take kindly to strangers knocking on their doors in the middle of the night. Especially when the strangers looked as rough as John did.
As he started walking again John ran a hand across his chin, trying to remember the last time he’d looked at himself. There was a few days of stubble, so it was at least that long since his last mirror encounter. Everything was supposed to get easier in time, but looking at the chin and the cheeks they had shared was harder every day.
Despite not seeing himself, John knew he looked bad. He’d had enough late nights and early mornings over the years to know how bad the bags under his eyes got, though he’d never seen them after weeks of bad sleeping. Did it count as bad sleeping if most of the time he didn’t sleep at all?
It had gone beyond just under-eye bags though. The last time he’d been in the office – yesterday? The day before? Last week? – the receptionist hadn’t been looking when he started to sign in. She was halfway through a sentence when she finally turned round, and she’d actually stopped and gasped. Before John had left that day his boss had spent half an hour trying to talk to him, before not so tactfully saying he should take some sick leave.
Sick leave. That implied this was temporary. As far as John was concerned this was his life now. Nothing could fix what had happened. If only it was as simple as him being sick.
The rain was getting heavier, and John eyed up the houses again. No, not when he was already drenched. His shirt was sucking water down under the collar of his coat and he could feel it sticking to his ribs.
The houses on his left gave way to a high, old-fashioned metal fence, topped with ornamental spikes higher than John’s head. That looked more promising. Somewhere as fancy as that would have a doorway or an overhang he could shelter in until the weather broke.
The fence led the way round what looked like an overgrown garden, thick with small trees and brambles. At last it gave way to an open gate and a battered slab path, and John ran down it just as the lightning started. He barely registered the church before he slammed into the door. Thunder rolled overhead, breaking the silence of the night, and John’s pulse spiked. With shaking hands he tried the latch on the door, and he gave a cry of relief when it turned. He stumbled inside before the next flash of lightning and staggered further in.
John collapsed as his world faded to black.
When he could think again, he was lying curled up on his side on hard, cold stones. It felt just like the care the rest of the world was giving him; present, but not helping. He unfurled and pushed himself upright, still focusing on his breathing as he got to his feet and came back to his senses.
The inside of the church was dark, the only illumination coming from a street light outside one of the windows. If the light had come from the window above the altar John would have taken it as a sign. Coming from the side window it was nothing more than a mockery. Staggering forward on numb legs John walked down the aisle, staring at the dark window in front of him.
Old prayers from his school days rose in his mind. Were any of them appropriate now?
“Dear Lord, thank you–” John’s jaw snapped shut and he ground his teeth. No. That wasn’t appropriate. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change? That didn’t feel any better on his tongue.
Lost for words, John sat on one of the pews and stared at the altar.
He sat there for as long as he could bear the silence.
“Why, Lord?” he asked. “Why did any of this have to happen? Is this some test, some proof of faith? Because if so, I’ve failed. I would rather fail every time than have to go through something like this.”
John’s head fell to his chest as he tried to cry more tears. All that came out where shudders of pain instead.
How long he sat like that he didn’t know, but at some point he noticed a shift in the air. It was warmer, and heavier, the same feeling as walking into a tropical greenhouse. It wasn’t extreme enough to cause him to sweat, but it took the edge off his shivering.
Footsteps echoed round the church, but John didn’t jump at the noise. It didn’t surprise him, even though he didn’t think anyone was there.
“May I join you?” the newcomer asks.
John turned and stared at them, worried about who else would be wondering the streets this time of night. In the shadows its hard to make out much about the person, but their clothes were smart and clean. They looked better than John’s did, so he figured he wasn’t in a position to get picky.
John shrugged. “It’s not my house.”
That made the newcomer snort with laughter, and as they walked up to the pew across from John they were smiling. He was smiling, rather. As he passed through the street light John saw a well-kept beard, and he felt very conscious about his own facial hair. Everything about the newcomer was crisp and clean, while John could feel grit under his nails and smell old sweat on his skin.
“Do you have faith?” the stranger asked after he’d sat down.
John shakes his head and looks away. “No. I did.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Those are the times that faith helps most. If you believe, things will get better.”
“Will they?” John snapped. With a deep breath he brought his voice under control, though his hands stayed clenched in his lap. “Why would they? There’s nothing that can happen to make any of this better.”
“Time is a great healer–”
“Oh, shut up.” John knew the person was only trying to help, but that was all anyone had done. Try. “Everyone’s been saying that to me. ‘Time heals all’, and all that crap. All I can hear though is, ‘this is going to hurt for ages and you just have to deal with that’. That’s not the life I want. I don’t want this.”
The person had the tact to stay quiet a moment longer. “Everything happens for a reason.”
“Does it?” John laughed, a bitter, hoarse laugh. “Then let’s ask Him, shall we? Why did this happen?”
“To test you.”
“Why did I need testing?”
“Because everyone does.”
“If I was being tested, why did my child–” John’s voice failed, and he choked back a sob. Running a hand down his face he whispered the next words. “Why did my child have to pay the price?”
The stranger answered just as softly. “Because it was their time.”
John jumped to his feet and spun to the stranger. “How? How can a child have so little time, when there are so many idiots out in the world who get to keep living?”
“Why do bad people get to live when innocent children get hit by buses?”
“Why did my child have to die and that arsehole driver not even get scratched!?”
The stranger jumped to his feet in a flash of lightning. “Because I said so!”
Outside thunder tore the air in half, rolling on and on while the sky burnt. John staggered backwards, falling to the floor, and cowered before the aura of the stranger.
After a minute, maybe less, the noise and lights died down. John waited another minute before he pulled himself back up. The stranger was sat again, elbows on his knees as he stared at his feet. John couldn’t put his finger on why, but he had the impression the stranger was glowing.
When the stranger didn’t say anything John sat down again, still watching him. The rage had faded, leaving nothing but a tremble in his hands.
“I’m sorry,” the stranger said at last. “I… sorry.”
John sat back and kept watching them. Some deep part of his brain screamed at him to run, but the numbness of his life didn’t let him. Besides, what’s the worst that can happen to him?
“It was tactless,” John said. “And possibly in poor taste.”
The stranger smirked. “Possibly?”
“I’m not sure I’ve had enough sleep to make judgements like that.”
“Ha. No, that’s fair enough. Still clued in enough to recognise that though. I doubt you’d be surprised how many people become devout believers at times like this.”
“I’d imagine just as many people lose their faith.”
“Before or after a conversation?”
“Either. Both.” John shrugged and pulled his sodden coat closer. “I hope you’re not expecting me to fall to my knees and beg forgiveness by the time you’re through.”
“Would it hurt you to do so?”
“No, but it wouldn’t be genuine.”
“Well, thanks for your honesty at least.”
“‘Because I said so.’”
“Ah, yes. I’m sorry about that, John.”
“Are you sorry about my child’s death?”
“Yes. Of course I am.”
“Then why did you ‘say so’?”
“I… I didn’t. Not really.”
“Oh? Then I don’t need to be worried about you, or worship you.”
The stranger inhaled sharply and started cracking their knuckles. “Look, it’s more complicated than just saying, ‘this happens’, ‘that happens’. That’s how it used to be, but things have changed.”
“What things?” John wasn’t sure if he actually cared about the answer. It was starting to sound too much like a pity-party for his tastes, but it was better than being left alone with his own thoughts.
“Numbers, for a start. There weren’t all that many people to start with, and all they wanted were simple things. A good harvest, good hunting, a useful mate. I got so sucked into trying to get through all the backlog of people, the next time I actually read what they were asking for it had all changed. A good job, a better house, more money. Everything gets lost in the noise, there's no control left, and it’s all I can do not to scream.” The stranger dropped his head into his hands and tightened his fingers in his hair.
John watched for a moment. Something strange was stirring in his stomach, something he hadn’t felt for an age, something he never thought he’d feel again. Sympathy. “I don’t suppose you can get anyone to help?”
The stranger laughed and collapsed back on the wooden pew. “No. No one else.”
“Not sure that’s the sort of thing I’d trust to out-sourcing anyway.”
“Right? I get enough stick as it is.”
“So why not walk away?”
“Pardon?” The stranger shifted round to look at John properly, and he could feel the piercing eyes cut through the dark.
“Well, why not? If everyone hates you anyway, why not walk away? See what happens.”
“That could go very badly. And not everyone hates me.”
“A lot of people blame you. And be honest – have you done anything for someone and had that person actually give you the credit for it? Or did they say it was fate, or luck, or their own skill, or something.”
“I… you know, you’re a very cynical person.”
“You made me that way. And you didn’t answer the question.”
“No. I haven’t. I get the blame for things that slip through the cracks, and by the time I’ve done anything for anyone they’ve moved on. Half the time the things I do arrive so late that people think it’s taking the piss. Some times I’ve made things worse for people, just by trying to do what they asked me to do.”
“So walk away.”
“Why not?” It was the argument John had been having with his therapist. You can’t just give up on life. Well why not? Why couldn’t John do stupid things, like walk all night? John idly wondered what his therapist would say about this meeting.
“Because… well I can’t.”
“Because you said so?”
The stranger huffed and threw his hands up, but John just smirked. “I told you, John, it’s not that easy.”
“Then find a plan that is that easy. You of all people should be able to just snap your fingers and make something work.”
“I told you it’s not like that.”
“Hey, no skin off my nose if you carry on. I’m done with your help, no offence.”
“I’m not sure how I can’t take offence at that. But I appreciate your honesty.” Silence fell once more as the stranger was lost in thought. John didn’t think, and loved the relief of not thinking. He just listened to the rain outside, and the way it danced in the gutters of the old church.
The stranger was the first to talk again. “What… just suppose I did walk away. What would I do?”
John thought about it. “Walk. See what else there is. Get lost and end up in a church talking to a stranger.”
“Hmm. I think I’m doing this the wrong way round.”
“Plans don’t always work. And sometimes you have to break things to make something new.”
“Are you suggesting I break the world?”
“No. I’m just saying I wouldn’t mind if you did.”
“More honesty.” More silence. Then with a sigh the stranger got up. “As much as I’ve enjoyed this, I can’t sit around all night.”
“Oh? Places to be?”
The stranger grinned at John. “More like places not to be.”
John grinned back. “Good luck.”
“And you. And… I’m sorry.”
“I mean it though. I never thought it would turn out like this.”
“That’s life for you.”
“I don’t normally have to deal with that sort of thing. I’ll see you around, John.”
“No offence, but probably not. I’m done.”
“Fair enough. In that case, good luck.” With a last nod the stranger headed back up the aisle, and disappeared into the darkness. John listened hard, but he didn’t hear the door go.
Outside the rain was still chucking down, so John stretched out on the pew and settled onto his back. The numbness was fading, and in its place he could feel a nervous anticipation.
“The storm’s only going to get worse,” he muttered to himself, and he started to doze off.