Before her aunt became sick, Ava had sworn she’d never go back to Horton. The older woman had no other family, so a heavy dose of guilt brought her to Aunt Enid’s bedside until she recovered. Her late mother’s shaming voice would have otherwise haunted Ava’s sleepless nights full of fitful dreams.
Five years passed since her mother’s death with no other reason to return to her hometown. Old friends with whom she still cared to know stayed in touch, but she had little in common with their stay-at-home Mom experiences of dirty diapers and soap opera storylines. Ava’s calendar didn’t include the upcoming high school reunion, as she’d long ago stopped following those classmates’ pretentious social media updates. She didn’t care to ever visit Horton again except for seeing her mother’s aging sister at holidays.
A few days after Enid’s cheeks pinked up gain, she made a special request of Ava. “I’ve been feelin’ so poorly, I been out of church for two weeks. So I’d like you to take me to the revival tonight,” she told her. Ava’s stomach sunk, and she spun from her place at the kitchen sink in shock to face the woman seated behind her at the table.
“Aunt Enid, are you sure you’re up to that?” Ava failed to mask her reluctance with concern for her elder’s health, and the lady eyed her skeptically. Youthful summers spent within such religious confines rushed back to Ava, and her senses filled with pungent perfume drowning out body odor in a tent’s thick, humid air, sweating bodies pressed together amidst a preacher’s bark and mourners’ wails, the repentance of their sin bringing many to tears. Ava felt her own neck perspire, and it began to trickle down her spine at the visceral memory.
Even wearing a light cotton sundress provided no relief in the similarly damp dusk that greeted them as they made their way to ancient wooden folding chairs lining the revival’s makeshift sanctuary that evening. Ava braced Enid’s arm and shoulder as she escorted her precariously down the center aisle to seats near the front. She could feel their inquisitive gazes upon them, whispering old looky-loos discussing her reappearance among them. Had she not been so preoccupied with the task at hand, she’d liked to scornfully glare right back at those busy-bodies.
All manner of jubilant hymns kicked off the service and whipped the crowd into a spirited throng before the sermon began. Ava tried to stare forward to avoid getting a bird’s-eye view of the overwrought parishioners surrounding her. Seeing the preacher in a cream-colored linen suit walk in and take his place at the pulpit stupefied her. Her high-school boyfriend, Langley, stood confidently at the front of the crowd. He cast an image of calm coolness as his confident smile cast its gleaming brightness upon his flock.
As surprised as her niece, Aunt Enid asked, “Is that who I think it is?” They both sat shocked as he broke into a loud sermon full of all the fire and brimstone Ava remembered from long ago days of childhood. His sermon possessed a passion absent from what Ava remembered of their courtship. They’d gone to Sunday school together mornings after lustful Saturday night dates spent making out in his basement bedroom. She blushed in spite of herself thinking back to how Langley’s mother once almost caught them half-naked. Luckily for them both, she stopped short of the threshold as the girl scrambled to redress.
“I don’t know if I can sit through this,” she replied, but Enid patted her hand reassuringly and nodded at the young woman. She tried to reassure her with, “It will be all right, dear.”
The evening’s heat only stoked her core temperature, as memories flooded over her throughout the duration of Langley’s rousing speech. While he rambled on about the wages of sin, people succumbing to the ways of the world, and repentance for secular living, Ava could only think of taking him to the Sadie Hawkins’ dance and wearing his idiotic yet favorite “Hey, Koolaid” t-shirt to school that week as part of the festivities. She also remembered how they’d once occupied Lovers’ Lane when a police officer knocked on the window to admonish them for not using the car’s parking lights while they once again scrambled for clothing.
She couldn’t believe Langley served as such a believing crowd’s moral leader. Trying to shake off the flashback as simple youthful folly, she struggled to separate their past from the present moment and just get through the final minutes. A spirit-filled call to the altar served as the sermon’s climax. Realizing they could finally leave, Ava felt relief wash over her like the baptismal waters of the River Jordan itself.
She rushed her aunt to the center aisle, hurrying past the other attendees whose socializing stood in their way. One final obstacle also blocked her path – the reverend stood at the exit shaking hands with his faithful and blindly trusting followers. Ava mentally coached herself, “You can do this, girl. Just keep walking. Maybe he won’t even recognize you.” She pasted a wan smile on her face, hoping to escape easily.
No such luck. “Ms. Enid, so glad to see you this evening,” Langley greeted the then turned his syrupy smile on her niece. “And you, Ava. It’s been so long. How did Horton Third Baptist ever earn your presence here tonight?”
Langley and his platitudes proved as insincere as his earlier message to the congregation. Her suspicions about the preacher’s false witness confirmed, Ava swallowed her pride and croaked, “Good to see you, too.” She reached to quickly shake his hand and go, but Langley gripped her shoulder instead.
He dealt a final blow with saying, “I hope my message tonight revived your soul and finally shined a light on your past ways.” Ava fought to hide her angry astonishment. She started, “Why you …”
Enid interrupted her, “Don’t worry about her, Langley.” She removed the pastor’s hand from her niece’s shoulder and said, “You know, she wasn’t the only one in the back of that Pinto. Good night, young man.”
She turned to Ava, “Let’s go, dear. I’m sure you can’t wait to leave Horton.”
Studio 30+ prompt – visceral
photo: oinonio on Flickr