EVER BEFORE ME • by R M Graves

“Wash me throughly from my wickedness,”

Megan’s pure, plaintive soprano rang out from the chancel and David pressed his cheek to their baby’s head, his eyes tight shut. Her solo didn’t falter. He dared to breathe and looked up, blinking. His wife was… amazing?

She stared ahead, her mouth open but almost motionless. The song poured from her. Not sung, released. How did that small body ever contain it all? He gulped at a lump of pride, for her, for them. For their perfect little family.

Megan had been mute and sullen all weekend. The last time David had heard her voice was when moaning about his constant lateness. That was Friday night. He had kissed her nose, put her grumpiness down to performance jitters, and told her not to worry. He promised to be here for her, at the service. A promise met with a stiff nod and pressed lips.

The choir ranked both sides of the altar, perpendicular to the congregation. Women versus men. Sitting on the front row he was only a few feet away, but ached for Megan not to be sideways to him and baby Lou. He wished she would turn her head, see them, sing to them.  But she was focusing on the bass and tenors.

“And forgive me all my sins,”

One of the men nodded a metronome for her. Not someone David knew. Tall with dark, slicked hair and black-in-black eyes, all pupil. David felt touched that his wife had such supportive friends. The other female voices wrapped around Megan, and David’s skin prickled. He gave himself over to the delirium of harmonies and spicy incense, so thick it played the light into rays.

For the first time David thought he understood what Megan got from church. It was as if a great secret resided here. Or truth, maybe. He vowed to listen to his wife more often. Work less. Do more together, as a family.

Megan’s nodding friend smiled, and David noticed pink mottling her cheek as the stranger performed a solo too. His voice was fine, deep and masculine.

“For I acknowledge my faults,”

Megan bobbed her head rhythmically for the dark-haired man, gaze locked and oblivious to everyone. When she bit her lip, David caught himself averting his eye, out of politeness. A frowning smile wavered on his face.  He watched his son sleep, seeking comfort there while something squirmed in his skull. Watch her, it whispered. Watch them.

The female choir swelled, Megan offered up her voice and the bass slid into it. She stifled a smile, making dimples of her cheeks, and blinked approval to the man. It was the briefest gesture as she lowered her head to her music, no more than a twitch, but it wrenched David’s stomach. He had grown accustomed to the cool stillness of her features; the telepathy of their robotic day-to-day routine. He had forgotten Megan could light up.

The singers’ chests rose and fell in unison, every breath shared. David imagined his wife and the stranger’s hearts synchronizing too, their pulses rising together. He took a breath himself, shook his head. Ridiculous, he thought, but peered at them.

Then Megan looked up again, without guard, as if forgetting where she was. David looked away but too late, the moment already burned into his vision.

She wore an expression David had not seen in a long time. So rare that — next to his son — it had become his most treasured possession. Her eyes were round, open and offering. Her cheeks blushed to the neck. It was the look that once said, “I know you like what you see.”

It was the look she wore naked.

The bang of blood in his ears blocked the choir. Baby Lou wriggled in the crook of his arm, creaking a yawn, waking. The heavy thump behind David’s ribs would not calm, no matter how much he sighed. He kissed his son, the cheek so soft against his lips, it almost wasn’t there.

The choir surged and David winced, grinding his teeth. Megan and the stranger were lost together. Entwined in one last, long climactic breath.

“And my sin is ever before me.”

The baby howled and Megan shot them a frown; the final note still on her lips. The child squirmed and wailed, screwing up its big, dark, eyes.

David’s grip tightened.

R M Graves writes in London, UK.

This story is sponsored by
Clarion West — Apply now and prepare for your professional writing career with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.

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