Chuck Foster sat behind a church, in a cemetery, on top of his mother’s grave. He did so often, performing a dark ritual none of the church members knew about. And maybe it was best they didn’t know, for not only was the ritual dark but in the eyes of the devout it was also sacrilegious. The staunchest worshippers would have called it demonic.
Rather than lighting a candle in his mother’s memory, laying fresh flowers or reciting an eloquent prayer, Chuck babbled to the sky while clutching a glass pipe.
He struck his Bic over and over, a burst of silver flashing in the darkness. Shaking the lighter and holding it close to his face, he checked the fluid level inside.
A search through his pockets yielded neither a spare lighter nor money to buy another lighter. Maybe he could bum some change from the corner, he thought. But it was late. Not too many people walked the streets that time of night, and the ones who did, aimlessly wandering like lost pariahs, were just as broke and void as he himself.
Staring at the rock perched on the tip of the pipe, Chuck scratched his cheek and began to fidget. Chapped, trembling lips mumbled a quick prayer. He struck the lighter once again, receiving false blessings through orange illumination.
He touched the flame to the tip. The rock cracked, sizzled and popped. Inhaling slow, steady, long and deep, Chuck felt the smoke fill his lungs, course through his body and massage his tormented brain.
A white cloud swirled in the air. Then came the euphoria, a feeling of love and happiness and the touch of God’s own hand. Chuck smiled in a darkness that no longer seemed so dark. The moon shined brighter. The autumn air smelled fresher. And when the oaks and maples rustled their leaves, Chuck thought he heard music, angels singing their song.
Distant memories drifted from the shadows of his mind. Chuck and his younger brother tossing a football in the yard. Their mother cooking pancakes on Saturday mornings. His first bike, his first kiss, his first time selling one of his oils on canvas. Christmas, Thanksgiving, cookouts and laughter. This he remembered. The other he tried to forget.
Yet forgetting wasn’t easy. His high soon faded, followed by the crash. Haunting memories loomed larger than life. Chuck folded his arms across his chest, embraced his loneliness and began to rock. The darkness thickened and closed in all around him. He sat still and listened. Instead of angelic music, the trees snickered. Then howled. Chuck cocked his head toward the nearby woods. Something was there. Demons of the past, Chuck called them.
Demons coming to get me.
He closed his eyes and rocked harder, faster. Yet no matter how much he tried he could not forget.
The demonic look in his brother’s wide eyes.
Blood pooling on the floor.
Get up, mama. Get up.
Her body lying twisted and still.
Chuck ran his callused fingers over the bronze marker. Weighed down by guilt and grief, he slumped onto the ground, folding himself into a tight fetal position. Wishing for death, he lay there for the longest time, and when death didn’t come soon enough, he silently prayed for its arrival.
There he remained the next morning. The sun rose behind a stand of maple, pine and oak. Inside the church, the organist began to play. Chuck stirred, leaning up on his elbow. With the bright rays on his face, he thought his prayers indeed had been answered, that the shining light was his guidance home. Yet as the fog of sleep lifted, he realized he was still part of the world, one of God’s many children left on earth to suffer.
He looked at the church, remembering past services spent in morning worship. He, Reginald and their mother sitting on the third pew, hands clapping, feet tapping, the First New Hope Church resounding with praise.
As the music rose in tempo and volume, Chuck stood and stared, recognizing the song as one of his mother’s favorite hymns. He tossed the pipe onto the ground, crushed it beneath his foot then hobbled up the hill. When he reached the front door, the choir began its third stanza.
Angels, Chuck thought. Angels singing mama’s song.
Not since his mother’s funeral had Chuck entered the church. Doubt and hesitation seized him where he stood. Glancing over his shoulder, he felt the emptiness behind him, the desolation and despair, a long road to nothing.
He stepped inside.
Heads turned and eyes stared, but Chuck didn’t notice. All he saw were the white robes flowing in the pulpit. Wearing mismatched shoes — his clothes dirty and tattered, his body reeking of filth and waste and years of neglect — Chuck stumbled down the center aisle. Stares turned into whispers, whispers into nudges, but no one stopped him. No one denied his salvation.
Like Reverend Green, many of the church members knew of Chuck’s fall. Not only the how but also the why. They often left clothes for him at the corner store, bought him a hot meal or included him in their prayers. But it hadn’t been enough to save him from his demons.
Standing before the pulpit, Chuck lowered his eyes and bowed his head. Reverend Green rose to his feet, followed by a devoted congregation. Together they joined the choir in joyous hallelujah.
Chuck turned and looked at all the singing faces. He wanted to sing too. For his mother, himself, and even for Reginald. But years of darkness had stifled his voice. So he simply closed his eyes and listened to the voices of others. Voices of spirit, belief, compassion and hope. Voices rising through the rooftop, rising in the air.
Kevin Luttery writes for both juveniles and adults. The above piece is adapted from his unpublished novel, CHUCK’S VIGIL, which was inspired by meeting a real life “Chuck”.
This story is sponsored by
Hydra House — Publisher of Pacific Northwest science fiction and fantasy, including K.C. Ball’s collection of scifi shorts “Snapshots from a Black Hole & Other Oddities” and Danika Dinsmore’s middle-grade fantasy “The Ruins of Noe,” sequel to “Brigitta of the White Forest.”