The podium and cross look lonely within the dim space ahead of me. As I gaze forward, I imagine myself standing there, dressed all in black, singing at Leah’s funeral. My parents huddle together, arms entwined, in a front pew. I alone face the congregation, and though I’m shaking so hard my voice falters, I don’t want to let my sister down. I bravely confront her coffin and dig deep to summon more vocal strength. I make it through the end of “Amazing Grace.”
For the record, Leah would be pissed. She hates that song.
In the next minute, I’m praying again. Please let her be okay. Please, God. Please? It must be something that happens automatically in a church. Please, God. She’s my sister. My sister. My only sister…
Stupid. God knows that.
I swallow and blink at the ceiling. When I’m ready, I face the front anew.
The cross up front is simple, sparse. A small podium draped with a cloth sits on the left. It’s decorated with things cut from felt, something a youth group would make. Thick, fuzzy red writing shouts, “The Blood of the Lamb Has Saved Us, Sinners All”; yellow, orange, and blue flames lick at the text.
Something creaks—maybe a floorboard—and I swivel around, hoping to see someone suspicious. No. It’s just Pastor James and the guy he’s praying with. Their heads still hang down. One of them must have shifted in his seat. I puff out a deep breath and turn back to the front.
“She’ll turn up. She’ll turn up. She’s done lots of stupid stuff before and she’s always been okay.” I whisper this over and over. Inside, though, I’m not sure it’s true this time.
Please. Please let her be okay. Please let her not be dead.
Tears gather in my eyes, and a lump the size of Texas knots in my throat. I dig a tissue from my purse and wipe my nose. I dab under my eyes, careful to veer around my eyeliner, and sniffle. But going into meltdown mode here, in this church? No. It won’t happen. I won’t let it. I press my knuckles into the old wood. My joints start to throb, but I hold them against the smooth surface until physical pain replaces emotion, and the tears vanish down my throat. Happy with my show of self-control, I shove the wadded up mess of tissue into the side pocket of my purse.
I let out a sigh. This is probably a huge waste of time. What am I hoping to find? I’ve come here for six days in a row and nothing’s turned up. Nothing’s happened. Why am I expecting something different now? God, I just want to help Leah. Please give me a sign. Let me know she’s okay.
When I glance down, I discover my hands are clasped together. Am I praying? Am I seriously praying?
Another noise; I swing around in my seat. The two in the back. I wonder how long they can keep up with it—talking to God. Together. Exactly when that thought crosses my brain, Pastor James’s head bobs up. He smiles at me. I freeze. Crap. Grimacing, I face the front again. Whatever. Worst case: I interrupted his prayer. Best case: He has something to report.
I force myself to stay seated the way I am, but I finally give in to the impulse I’ve been fighting. “God,” I whisper, “are you listening? Where is she? Did Mason have something to do with it?”
God doesn’t answer, but a sound echoes behind me—a mumble and then movement. I can’t help myself. I swivel.
Pastor James is coming up the center aisle, strutting almost, in his usual swaying gait. His hands are in his pockets. As he gazes at me, his eyebrows shoot up to hide in his long bangs; he looks like he has something important to tell me.
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