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Fiction

From the enclosure of my car and at a safe enough distance, I watch. I clutch the paper cup of coffee and blow across it, trying to cool the liquid down. I can feel my stomach tying itself in knots. Across the street, I see the parking lot starting to fill up. The faithful are arriving. Two men exit their cars and move toward each other, wives and children following along like ducklings. I can’t hear what they’re saying but I see their salt water taffy smiles. I witness their hearty handshakes and solid eye contact. They break away from each other and stroll toward the entrance, Bibles as big as phone books clutched in the crooks of their strong arms.


To the untrained eye, they radiate warmth. They are welcoming. They are just the same as you and me.


I wonder if any of them know. They must know. I know, so I’m not welcome here anymore.


With each opening swing of the double doors, I can hear the upbeat music if I hold my breath and strain hard enough. The lyrical hallelujahs are all packaged up with a nice modern bow. A little electric guitar riff here, a little rattling of a snare drum there. All of the voices united, harmonizing.


I piece together the song and realize I still know all the words. I surprise myself by mouthing them, my eyes a little misty.


Then the knuckles rapping on my window startle me, shaking me out of my trance. Some of the hot drink spills onto my pant legs. I bang the steering wheel with my hands and curse under my breath. “Uh, ma’am,” the police officer says through the glass. “Ma’am, you can’t park here. You gotta move it along.” He squints and points up at the sign I didn’t notice before.


“Ok, ok. I’m going. I’m moving,” I mutter. I turn the key in the ignition and pull out onto the road, eyes forward, mind still stuck where I’ve just been sitting. I steal a glance up at the three iron crosses. They’re linked together and enormous, stripped of any paint, industrial and cold. The only color I see comes from the two flags on poles beside them, American and Christian, their boldness displayed proudly, blustering in the breeze.


The scenery now just becomes a speck in the rearview as I put my blinker on and merge onto the highway.


*****


On another Sunday morning, over a stale bagel and black coffee in a chipped mug, I read about the trial in the paper. His designer suit and oversized beard are gone now, I see, replaced with head-to-toe orange and steel cuffs, tightly cinched around hands clasped together in carceral prayer. His shoulders are bent forward and his eyes cast downward. There is a circle of judgment around him; scowls in the gallery suggest everyone in the courtroom has made up their mind.


The picture on the front page doesn’t bear much resemblance to the person I remember. Now he is silent. Now he is the one in submission.


I roll up the periodical tightly, constrain it with the rubber band, and slam it down into the trash. I feel the stinging tears of outrage, and some kind of twisted wanderlust moves me toward the door. I grab a rain slicker and my keys from the hooks on the wall and walk toward the garage, clumsily slipping my boots on feet that are still in motion.  


A voice cascades down from upstairs. “Wait, just wait. I’ll go with you.”


She makes it down in three or four hops and jogs toward me. She gently puts her hand on my shoulder, a feather’s weight. I unclench my teeth and turn to face her. The peek of her smile warms me, mixing in with the white-hot anger in my stomach. I let it all churn. We walk together to the car and climb in, me with urgency and her with a morbid curiosity. The engine comes to life as my head starts to clear.


“So what’s going on? Are you ok? This is kind of becoming a bad habit,” she says as we speed down the road. I roll my eyes and smirk. “I mean, people go to church every Sunday, right? Is that a habit or is it just something that they do?” I ask.


She turns her face toward me, frowning, and searches mine. The car is quiet except for the hum of the heater and the slap of the windshield wipers. I can tell she’s chewing on her words before she spits them out.


“Yes, you’re right, people do go to church every Sunday, but usually they go in,” she says. She wraps the words inside a light chuckle, trying not to set me off.


“Good point, but you know why I can’t go in,” I say and shrug. There’s no use arguing. I know it’s not rational, but there’s a pull. I must return to the scene. I must be in its orbit. I’m smart enough to admit, only to myself, that it’s also a little masochistic.


I slow the car and park it in my usual no parking zone, but no one is here to enforce any laws today.


I know from the story that the buildings are empty now, but seeing it all in person really unnerves me. She grabs my hand as we both sit in silence. “Let’s go over there,” I say suddenly and my other hand is already on the door handle. Hers mimics mine and we exit. The rain is lightly spitting, but I pull my hood up anyway and dig my hands into my pockets.


As we walk up to the entrance, I see that the doors, usually adorned with seasonal wreaths, are now returned to their original generic glass. A sign with a 1-800 number sits propped up in a naked window. I feel a tinge of sadness, maybe just some residual nostalgia, so I take out the Kleenex from my pocket and dab a little around my eyes. She doesn’t address my emotion, just stands there with her hands on her hips, taking a look around, trying to kill some time until I speak.


“The crosses are gone!” I announce, surprised. Then I catch a glint of silvery gray out of the corner of my eye. I walk toward it. She stays back. Then I notice the makeshift memorial, bunches of supermarket flower arrangements—roses, baby’s breath, greenery—leaning up against a large iron peace sign, interspersed with small stuffed animals. Someone has taken the metal remnants of those crosses and refashioned them anew.


I am hopeful that this is for the girls. I pray none of these flowers were left in honor of this place or that man or any of the flock who stayed silent. I pull my hood back and let myself cry quietly, the rain and tears sliding down my face together.


*****


It’s an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon in the fall, and I find myself back here again. I came alone this time.


Dry leaves swirl across the asphalt. All of the buildings are still empty except for one. The parking lot is full again, full of kids, full of life.


I get out of my car and head straight toward the lopsided Spirit Halloween banner. Why do they always look so haphazardly hung? The afterthought of the banner and the store itself stand in contrast with my own certainty.


I am here for a damn costume. I am celebrating this pagan holiday.


I stop at those same double doors, a hesitant grip on the handle. I breathe in with purpose and pull one open. The doorbell jingles and the kid behind the counter welcomes me without looking up from his phone.


“Um, excuse me? Do you know where the devil costumes are?” I ask. He lifts a finger toward the back and I head that way. I walk along, carefree, surrounded by fake smoke and Vincent Price’s spooky cackle.


And there it is. It’s exactly how I’d pictured it. The Miss Devil costume. I snatch a bag in my size and head straight to the dressing room, whipping the thin curtain shut, and plopping it down on the bench.


I remove my sweatshirt and jeans, fold them neatly, and put them off to the side. I step into the dress, pull it up over my hips, and zip it up tight. I feel it curve around my body, and I lean into the pressure. This feels ok. This feels good.


I turn around to face the mirror and the lacy wings pop out. I place the crown of horns on my head and stroke the long, pointy tail, testing it out with a few cheeky swings.


“Hell yes,” I say.


I gather my street clothes in my arms and head back up toward the register to pay. The kid looks up, momentarily awestruck. He rings me up, and I swipe my card. “Can I just wear this out of the store?” I say and point to the bright red ensemble. “Uh, yeah, I guess so.” He shrugs and hands me my receipt.


I think this might be my last time here, so I put a little twist in my hips as I walk to my car. When I’m back in my seat, I take a final look toward the parking lot. I grab my phone from my purse and take a picture of myself, a hand throwing up devil horns, a rebellious tongue sticking out.


Then I hear a defiant laugh and realize that it’s mine.

November 05, 2021 14:27

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2 comments

Daniel Roueche
03:44 Nov 12, 2021

I like your writing style! It’s really descriptive and lends itself to great visualization. And I like how you gave glimpses into what may have happened to cause the narrator so much pain, but also left it open for readers to fill in the gaps themselves. The tone of your story is mysterious and sad and moody. I like it a lot.

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Ashley Cullen
13:58 Nov 12, 2021

Thank you so much Daniel! I really appreciate your kind comments.

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