The phone startled the Reverend out of sleep. His heart thumped with a generous uptick from the jarring shriek of the ring tone – his wife kept the volume at ten so that she wouldn’t miss calls from the garden.
The Reverend pressed his heels down onto the easy chair’s foot rest to push it back into place. Like most Thursday nights he had stayed up late to work on Sunday’s sermon. Falling asleep in the den afterwards was a common occurrence – reading glasses still perched on nose, notebook splayed on chest. His half finished cup of coffee sat quite cold now on the old mahogany table to his right.
Midnight rings were not uncommon in his line of work. Just last week he had received a similar awakening call from Donny Wilcox, a parishioner the church had hired as groundskeeper when he was laid off at the marina a few years back. Too ashamed to drag his beleaguered wife out of bed, Donny often called upon the Reverend for a ride home on his off-wagon nights. Most of these were spent at The Inn, a local pub on River Street whose clientele gravitated there for the classic rock on the jukebox, a few warmish beers and lots of glory-day cock and bull.
After a false start, the Reverend heaved himself out of the easy chair and fumbled for the phone receiver. As he raised it to his ear, he could see his wife’s figure silhouetted in the kitchen light behind her. She was wearing her Boston University t-shirt that was now so threadbare it had been delegated to night duty only. She leaned her head against the door frame, yawning as she watched him with her arms crossed against the spring chill.
“Reverend, it’s Neil, I’m sorry to wake you this time of night.”
“No, no it’s fine Chief, I wasn’t really sleeping. What can I do for you?”
Neil Woodhouse was chief of the town’s fire department. Aside from the few remaining old guard, the organization’s volunteer roster was made up primarily of young men in their late teens to mid-twenties. They were a nice group of kids, not saints by any means, but each one genuinely loved belonging to the fraternity of first responders. One watching them jump into their pickups at the first crackle of the police scanner might see a hint of pride and authority on their faces as they roared off, emergency lights flashing.
They hadn’t seen much action since the big burn at Olson’s Furniture last year. Aside from the occasional kitchen fire, their duties consisted primarily of running weekly drills in the vacant lot the town allowed the department to use on Elm Street.
More often then not, a group of the firemen’s buddies and their girlfriends would gather to watch these drills. Living in a small town that boasted neither a movie theatre nor a bowling alley, the fire lot was by default the place to be on a Saturday night. Car doors would be left open for the radio, hoods provided spectator seating as the volunteers practiced on fires set in old metal trash cans.
Their audience would be dressed in the typical uniform of their age group, t-shirts, jeans and sneakers with oversize cable knit sweaters thrown on for cooler nights. Huddled in the inner pack away from the plumes of wood smoke, the girls’ conversations would be punctuated with outbursts of laugher and gesticulations of their cigarettes while the boys drifted around their perimeter. Their evening would inevitably wind down at the 24 hour diner the next town over, each spending the $2 per person minimum for a couple more hours of banter, coffee and smokes.
The chief’s voice came through the earpiece.
“Rev, there’s been a bad accident up on Cedar Road, car versus tree. All I know right now is that the Clark boy was driving, he was killed instantly. Charlie Shepard was in the passenger seat, we had to use the Jaws to get him out of there – that thing crumpled up like a frickin’ tin can.”
“Oh God…where is he now? Did they take him to New Haven?”
“No, Middlesex – it’s closer. They’re working on him in the ambulance right now, should be arriving in five.”
The Reverend could hear voices floating in the background; the chief muffled the phone with his hand. “Yeah…yeah, yup, go with him. You two are with me, just a sec”
The chief uncovered the mouthpiece and came back on the line. “Rev, we’re headed up there now. Just stay by the phone, I’ll call you back with an update.”
The Shepard family had moved into town eight years prior, buying the old blue farmhouse next door to the parsonage. The parents were a middle aged couple with two girls and a boy, the eldest named Charlie. The father had gotten a job in the city as a pharmaceutical rep, and while they could have chosen one of the many suburbs in closer proximity, they had fallen in love with the bucolic hamlet sitting at the edge of the Connecticut River – not far from where it ended its journey to Long Island Sound.
Not long after they settled in, Charlie became fast friends with John Hardwick, an only child who lived down the street with his grandparents in a slightly droopy yellow Colonial. They’d bike a morning paper route together before school with one almost always at the other’s house immediately after. They shared a fascination with cars, and vowed to partner in opening an auto shop in town someday.
John’s house sat directly across from the firehouse. On the days that they weren’t tinkering under the hood of his grandpa’s old Volkswagen, he and Charlie would wander over there to hang out with the guys, playing darts and bugging them with questions. True mechanics at heart, they both wanted to know how everything worked, from the truck engine to the ladder to the hose assembly. By the time they were 15 and age eligible for the Junior Division, both boys had already been wholeheartedly welcomed into the fold.
Charlie was a quiet kid, polite and always willing to offer a helping hand, but seemingly lost in his own thoughts much of the time. While he took after his father in looks and stature, his blue eyes and shock of wavy black hair set him apart from the other members of his family. As a child his mother had managed to tame it by keeping it cropped close to his head, but as a teenager he let it grow wild, much to her chagrin.
Passing townsfolk on the street, Charlie might offer a crooked half smile in response to a greeting, but his eyes would quickly cast back down to the ground as he continued on. While extremely smart, anything that couldn’t be done with his hands bored him. He squeaked by in high school; mainly by acing his final exams after not cracking a book open all year – a fact that drove his teachers crazy. To his closest friends and family he was known for a wickedly dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and a perverse joy in teasing his two sisters to no end.
Charlie had a steady girlfriend, a tiny, soft-spoken girl named Marty. Marty had hair the color of an overripe strawberry which parted in the middle and hung straight down to her waist. With her bright blue eyes and cheeks that looked like polished apples she reminded some of a Celtic wood fairy.
They had begun dating freshman year, and by the junior prom their classmates had dubbed them “the old married couple”. It was obvious Charlie took special care with her, opening doors and keeping a protective hand at the small of her back when they navigated through crowds. Their relationship didn’t show any evidence of the dramatic blowups or on-again, off-agains that fueled most high school romances – they simply enjoyed each other’s company.
A few years after they moved into town, Charlie’s mother discovered she was pregnant with their fourth child. This event elicited many good-natured winks among the neighbors for the father’s benefit and somewhat horrified embarrassment from their teenage children as their mother was over forty.
This late in life baby seemed to understand that acceptance from her siblings was not guaranteed. Upon arrival she worked hard to prove herself by sleeping through the night. Now at 5 years old, she still solidly held the rank of beloved baby sister, doted upon and generationally removed from the adolescent squabbles among the three older children. Charlie was unconditionally her favorite, and she his.
Occasionally as a special treat, he would allow the little girl to tag along to a Saturday night fire drill. As the truck winded through town toward the lot, he’d pull her onto his lap so that she could reach the pull cord that sounded the warning horn. With Charlie’s fire hat perched on her head, she’d blast the horn again and again until the neighbors thought there must be a 4-alarm fire underway.
The little girl’s hair and eyes were the color of an old penny, but one that someone had taken the care to clean and polish. She was on the small side for her age and newly slender; most of her baby fat had disappeared except for the bit that had settled decidedly in her cheeks.
She was shy with most of those outside of her family, quick to hide her face behind her mother’s handbag when someone bent down to speak to her. When mentioned, most would label her as somewhat melancholy. As her family’s minister and next door neighbor, The Reverend knew better – he had witnessed her outgoing, slightly mischievous nature on many occasions. He supposed she was simply particular about who got to see it.
Between the Shepard’s house and the rectory stood a sentry line of azalea bushes, planted long ago by previous occupants. They had grown so tall over the years they made for a natural privacy fence. Undeterred, the girl and her Mary Janes had worn a small path between two of the bushes, ducking through almost daily to visit either the Reverend or his wife, chatting with them about little girl things while inspecting the contents of their cookie jar.
She was fascinated by their garden and the fact that they grew mostly vegetables and herbs. (Her mummy only grew flowers). She loved helping them pick and shell the peas, although half of them ended up in her mouth rather than in the colander. On some days she’d make hairpieces out of the mint, plopping a fragrant crown of it on her head and declaring herself “minty fresh”. Only when her mother’s third call for dinner carried over into the yard would she scurry back through the line.
Last Sunday he had been out in the garden after the 10am service, wrestling with the ever present weeds when he heard the familiar rustle of bushes.
“Hey Mister….psst! Mister!”
She had always called him Mister. Once he asked her why and he thought maybe she looked a little sorry for him that he couldn’t recognize his own name. “There’s Mister Smith and Mister Taylor and Mister Hardwick, and you’re THE Mister.”
She peeked at the Reverend through the leaves, but instead of coming through as usual she instructed him to watch her.
Picking up a handful of stones from the line of gravel that separated the Shepard’s patio from the grass, she ran over to the stacked stone pond that sat to the right of their back kitchen door. She threw a glance over her shoulder to make sure he was looking and then threw the rocks into the water, pantomiming the effort of heaving boulders twice her size.
As the rocks hit the surface with the little plinks and plunks appropriate to their weight, she soundtracked them with her own “KERRR-SPLASH!!!!”
She checked back with him again to make sure her performance was appreciated. The Reverend opened his eyes wide for her benefit and called out his awe at her efforts. Again and again the little girl threw them and “Ker-splashed” until she had none left, at which point she abruptly crouched down, ankles to bottom as only small children do.
Forgetting her audience, she sat as still as a garden gnome. With her head slightly cocked to one side and arms wrapped around knees, she studied the ripples undulating out wider and wider across the pond’s surface. The girl was so intent, she didn’t notice him turn and head back toward the house to wash the soil off his hands. As he got to his screen door he turned back to look again. She was frozen in place, continuing to watch the pond and he marveled at how she could still see the ripples. They had already gone beyond the place his adult eyes could follow.
The phone rang a second time.
The Reverend picked up the receiver and heard the Chief’s voice come over the line, although now it was higher pitched and slightly strangulated.
A few minutes later, the Reverend hung up the phone and looked up at his wife who was still standing there in the door frame, now looking alarmed at the expression on his face.
“Charlie Shepard is dead. They just pronounced him. Neil asked me to go over there and tell them.”
His wife’s hands flew up to her face, coming together to form a steeple over her nose and mouth.
“Oh God…Oh God, oh my God”
She stood stock-still, only her hands moving as they fluttered on and off her face like two birds who couldn’t decide where to land.
Anna crossed the room to come to where he sat, and he wished with all of his might that her pace would slow, that time and space and matter would somehow conspire to keep her from reaching her destination. Once the time allotted for him to receive her comforts had passed, he would have to act.
His wish was not granted. As wife put her arms around him, The Reverend frantically tried to calculate how much time he could add. Putting on his shoes. Not his loafers next to the back door – he could climb the stairs to get his sneakers from the bedroom and lace them carefully with double knots – that would take three extra minutes. Change his shirt – if he chose one with buttons rather than a pullover that would be another forty-five seconds.
Releasing his wife, he walked from room to room, hungry for more occupations. His watch! He had misplaced it the other day, but he knew it was somewhere in the house. He’d have to hunt around for it – there was a good possibility of eight minutes right there. He could make tea for Anna – no, coffee! Coffee was better – if he filled the carafe to the 12 cup mark it would take at least six and a half minutes.
This was the only gift he could give them that would ever really matter – a few more minutes, the most precious of seconds before the world they thought they lived in ceased to be. The bigger girls would have to be woken along with their parents. The little one was long asleep; she would be blessed with the most time, it was hours yet until the sun rose.
He went upstairs to retrieve his sneakers and a clean shirt, grabbing them out of the closet and sitting on the bed to begin his first tasks. Hands shaking, he broke one of the shoelaces; he’d have to start again. As he retied them with the leftover bits, he noticed his mouth was dry and cursed his descendance from Adam. What mortal voice could deliver such news without falter? Maybe if he were the progeny of the Olympic Titans – he’d have the powers of heaven and earth behind his voice, not this fragile, pathetic trinity of human muscle, membrane and breath that would undoubtedly stutter and fail. He pushed his arms into the cotton sleeves of the shirt and buttoned it as slowly as humanly possible.
He headed back downstairs and into the den to look for the watch. Crossing over to his desk he searched under the piles of papers that were scattered there until he spotted its metal glint peeking out from the bowl he kept spare change in. As he wrapped the strap around his wrist, he spotted the notebook containing his sermon laying forgotten on the floor. He walked over to the place where he had been sleeping and picked it up. The index cards stuck in the crease made it fall open to where he had left off and from there he could read the included passage from Isaiah:
I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.
He closed the notebook and tossed it onto the seat of his chair. He caught the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen, Anna was making it. There was nothing left to be done here.
He stepped out his back door and began the walk across the lawn, again pleading in vain for some unseen force to expand its distance or compel his legs to cease their journey. As he stepped onto the little girl’s path and through the azalea’s, her pond came into view. A moonless night, it reflected nothing; its inky surface undisturbed by wind or creature.
As the Reverend reached the Shepard’s door, Time rushed forward to meet him there and lifted up its staid, unapologetic face. He hesitated, waiting in desperation for a sign that other words could be said, that his cruel sentence had been expunged. But there would be no divine intervention tonight – there was only the will he had been given to step forward and knock.
The Reverend lifted his hand.