Homecoming, pt. 1

It had been a long time since she’d gone to church. It was winter. Early in December, though the Christmas season always flew by and by the end of it you’re wondering where all the time went, feeling like you had always missed something but not knowing what. The flurries of snow and ice were upon them, figure skaters were going out on the lake to impress their friends and fiancees, and once you went out into the woods you began to wonder if you would ever come out, surrounded by the snow-dusted evergreens, the bright red cardinals, trying to warm your nose with your cold hands, tucked into a pair of hand-knitted fingerless gloves you’d gotten from a family member who liked to play with yarn.

But that was besides the point. It had been a long time since she’d gone to church.

There used to be two churches in the little town. One of them was Catholic. Well, both of them had been Catholic for a while (baffling why you needed two Catholic churches), but then the Catholics had sold the second church to the Baptists and the beautiful historic cathedral was filled with old Protestant hymns and people raising their hands in worship. That had been when she was little.

For a long time, the hymns were played in there, played loud and played gladly. But then the hymns grew quieter and quieter, and by the time she had gone into her sophomore year in highschool, the congregation had shrunk to just a few devoted attendees. She remembered her sorrow as she watched the church slowly and painfully waste away, hammered by problems in the pastor’s family, by the old congregation’s refusal to accept new attendees with different ideas on worship, and then finally the devastating news that the church was closing down for good. It had been a fixture in her life since she was a little toddler, and she had cried a little bit, because though the pastor’s wife was giving them a hard time and though the old folks who had been there since the 70s didn’t want to hear anything new being played in the church, she had loved the little church, and she began to question why God had let the only Protestant church in town die out the way it did.

She had not stepped into another church since. The little town was already in Catholic country, so she supposed it only made sense that the Catholics would run out the Protestants. It was a little blessing that they hadn’t torn the building down – somebody had bought up the building and had repurposed it into a library. She went in once or twice, but none of the books were interesting, and none of them were new, either.

In the time since the church had closed down, she had graduated, dated at least two guys, went to college, moved to New York to start a job in graphic design, and finally was settling into a Manhattan apartment with sleek modern furnishings and not a Bible in sight.

She was content with her situation, but didn’t smile much anymore.

In preparation for a family reunion over Christmas, her mother had asked her to come back to her little hometown in rural Pennsylvania to see them. She hadn’t come home in a few years, and her family and friends were beginning to miss her.

So, she finally decided that she might as well hop over. She was settled in enough now that she could afford such an expense.
It was her first day back, and probably one of the strangest days of her life.

Marceline (or Marcy to her friends) had forgotten how awful the driving could be in southern Pennsylvania in the middle of winter. It wasn’t as terrible as enduring the regular snowstorms in New York, and was almost pleasant in comparison, though the roads were far more terrifying. She remembered that deer liked to set up ambushes for cars here, and was assailed by a horde of three on the way over (barely avoiding a head-on collision), and besides that it had been pitch black out and New York was usually lit up like a Christmas tree or a front lawn on Halloween, so by the time she reached her hometown she was looking and feeling very grumpy, nerves still slightly shot from her run-in with the deer ambush.

She climbed out of her sky-blue (now mud-spattered) sedan, minding her fuzzy Ugg boots on the slippery pavement in the parking lot. She had set up shop in the pizzeria parking lot, because she was starving and itching for something warm in her belly. It was just on the edge of town, and she remembered coming here as a kid after school with her friends. She didn’t know where they were now, and it didn’t matter much to her, though she did wonder briefly if the nice baker who used to run the place was still there.

She carefully but quickly tiptoed across the icy pavement up to the front. The lights were on, and the plaid curtains were still in the front windows. On the leftmost window, it was written in big red letters: PAPA MATHER’S PIZZERIA. It was just as she remembered, though it was getting a little grimy on the outside.

The interior looked okay, though. It was warm, and though the place was empty of customers she could hear somebody shuffling around on the checkered tiles in the back. The classic fixed diner tables still ran up and down the small pizza joint, all of the chairs and stools decked out in vivid red vinyl upholstery. On the walls were photographs of the town from the 80s and 90s, and a picture of the original founder – grandpap Mather – with the mayor, holding up an honorary ‘Key to the Town’ with a big beaming grin on his face. It was homely, but it was still empty.

The bell rang over her head as she walked in, rubbing her arms with thick grey mittens. She glared at nothing in particular, cursing cold weather as she enjoyed the warmth inside the old pizza place.

A man came up to the counter, looking tired and a little haggard. He was a little familiar, but not too familiar, though he beamed at the sight of her as she came up to the little window to order something.

“Hey, Marcey!” He cried. “Oh, boy, it’s been so long! How you been? I bet you were driving for a long time to get here, all the way from New York, eh? Man, did I miss you!”

She could almost touch on a name. The rapid-fire tongue did a lot to help jog her memory, because there weren’t a whole lot of people she knew that could talk at 600 words per minute.

“Um… hi.” She looked awkwardly at the countertop. She remembered the man from somewhere but couldn’t remember his name or relation. “Yep. Driving for a long time.”

“Oh, wait, I bet it’s been too long, I have started growing in my beard. Just like pops!” He chuckled, and leaned on the countertop. “Lemme guess. New job has got your mind so crowded you can’t remember a thing about me. How close am I?”

She blinked at him. “…About as close as Ohio?”

The strange man leaned back, rubbing the stubble around his face and giving her a funny look. “Mmhmm. Well, at any rate, you want something to eat?”

“Just some pepperoni pizza, please,” she said wearily, resting on the countertop.

The man went into the back with a patient smile, and said, “Coming right up!” as he vanished into the inner guts of the little shop.

It was so late, he was probably just cleaning up, getting ready to close up shop. Marceline felt bad for not being able to remember his name, but he seemed nice enough and he wasn’t being impatient about it, either.

Did he have a nametag? She wasn’t sure. She was too tired to care much.

He returned with her order. She looked on his chest to see if there was a nametag, but there wasn’t one. Bummer.

“That’ll be 5 smackers right there,” he said cheerily. “Enjoy!”

She withdrew the proper amount of cash from her purse, and handed it to him. The man took the money, placed it in the old-timey metal register, and quickly typed up a receipt for her to take home and… do something with. Then, as she ate quietly, clearly not up for talking, he walked into the back – whistling a ditty with absolutely no beat whatsoever – and began to sweep the floor.

The pizza recipe hadn’t changed. Maybe there was a little less sauce, but it would always vary from slice to slice if it was being made properly – that is, by hand. (Having grown up on this stuff, she was very picky in regards to the pizzerias she went to – if it didn’t remind her of Mather’s recipe, it wasn’t made properly. Being in New York helped in that regard.)

The man came back a little bit afterwards, smiling inquisitively and still holding a straw broom in his hand. “How is it?”

“It’s good,” she said, just finishing up. She licked the oil from her fingertips. “…I’m sorry. You’re really going to have to jog my memory. What’s your name?”

“It’s Mike,” he said. “Remember me?”

She thought for a moment. Her eyes blew up, and she snapped her fingers together. “Yeah, I remember you now. You’re Greg’s kid, aren’t you? What happened to him?”

Greg was Mather’s son, and was the owner of the joint when Marcey was a kid. Mike was usually seen hanging around the family business, and was almost like the poster-child or a mascot for it growing up, with his goofy attitude and fun, people-loving demeanor. Marcey remembered how Mike was prone to overwhelming her and the other more timid children growing up with his tendency to talk rapid-fire, but everybody liked him, even if they wouldn’t admit it.

“Pop retired while you were out,” Mike said by way of explanation. “I took over the family business in his stead. Still looks the same, don’t it? I’m mighty proud of the place.”

They spent a moment in silence looking around the shop. Mike had a big smile on his face; Marcey looked a little distant, like she was an alien on a familiar planet.

“So, what do you think?” Mike asked. “Feeling at home?”

“…Yeah,” said Marcey.

After the pizzeria, she began to drive through town, refreshing her memory along memory lane and beginning to remember what the little town looked like, once. Some of the trees were gone, but it was mostly intact. The trees that had been spared were bigger, now. The houses were decorated with light strings, the lawns speckled with inflatable snowmen and wireframe deer, all sparkling and shimmering with the powdery snow. Marcey remembered from when she was a child that people would frequently come onto the streets around Christmastime garbed in red and white, bearing their little hymnals, and would go caroling in the streets, but she didn’t hear anybody singing, and she didn’t think that the tradition would’ve held up in the age of staying inside and watching TV.

She drove slowly, examining the semi-familiar streets as she passed by. A tall, stone building stabbed up through the familiar skyline, decorated with beautiful, antique stained glass and a wonderful garden out front that had not been there the last time she visited – it had been years, so there had been lots of time for the trees to take root and the bushes to bloom. It was winter, so none of them were blooming now, but tiny little angel statues and lovely painted birdhouses gave it a rare liveliness in the dead of night and the dead of winter.

The old church looked like it was under new management again.
The last time she’d been here, it was a struggling library trying to figure out how it was supposed to make money giving out books for free. There were always dead leaves and dirt on the front steps and nobody was ever here.

But there seemed to be something strange. The lights were on, and if she listened closely, it sounded like there may have been people singing inside. She had seen that the other church in town was closed down for the night, and for good reason. Who would be up practicing music in a library at this time of night?

Curious, she drove up to the old parking lot, got out of her car, and walked up to the church doors. She knocked, once, twice, and slowly the talk and the music faded away, replaced by a curious murmuring. Somebody cracked the door open. It was somebody she had never seen before; he was a young buck, about 25, with crazy blonde hair and big, wild blue eyes. To be honest, he looked too happy and a little suspicious at Marcey’s appearance, and she stared back with 100% of the same pure suspicion.

“Hey, glad to see you!” he said. “Say, where’ve you been?”

“Huh?” Marcey scoffed, baffled. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before. Promise.”

“Really? Aw,” continued the wierd man. “I coulda sworn we’d met somewhere. You’re sure?”

“Yes. I am really very doubly triply certain sure,” Marcey assured, still looking disturbed. “I-I was just wondering-”

“Ah, if you say so!” said the strange man. “Well, my name’s Henry. Now what was it you wanted?”

Marcey sighed, already exhausted. “Well, I heard music, and I was just curious what was going on.”

“Oh, how wonderful! Come on in!” He flung the door wide open, and spread his arms to encompass the room. “We were just practicing for the service this week. You’re free to join us, if you like.”

Marcey took a few steps into the old church. A lot of the bookshelves were still set in row upon row along the far sides of the church, piles and piles of books scattered about, but down the central aisle of the church there were two long rows of pews, and at the front, the familiar pulpit, right smack dab where everybody could see it. In the pews and up by the pulpit, and also at the old piano (which seemed new) there were familiar and unfamiliar faces, all staring curiously up at her. When she came to the edge of the steps leading down to the main worship area, they all stared for a moment longer, then one person said, “Marcey!”, running down the aisle to meet her, and the rest of them instantly turned to each other and began chittering away, all saying either “That’s Marcey!” or “Who’s Marcey?”

At first, Marceline didn’t recognize the person charging up the steps, but then she did. “Juniper!” she cried, breaking a small smile for the first time in weeks.

Juniper paused at the top of the steps, bent over to catch her breath, and then tackled Marceline in a back-breaking hug. “Oh, Marcey, I missed you so much! Aw, it’s so great to see you again.”

Juniper and Marceline had gone to church together, and were best friends from their days in the nursery. Juniper – bouncy, spicy, and altogether hyper – was balanced out with Marceline’s mellow gentleness, and though they were always butting heads, they always did it in love.

“I missed you too, Juniper,” Marceline choked out, patting her gingerly on the back. “Oh, wow! What’re you doing here?”

“We started the church back up again!” Juniper replied. “Look how full it is! Even at 10 o’clock at night!”

“You really are?” Marcey looked out at the church again, and began to walk down the steps. The place had been cleaned up, the hardwood floors just as beautiful as she remembered, with a tall, vaulting ceiling that was just as awe-inspiring as always. The congregation began to get up to meet her.

“Yeah, really. Henry bought up the place right when the library owner called it quits, and started holding church services here again.” Juniper walked down beside Marcey. “We were practicing the songs for the Sunday service. Maybe you could join us?”

“Oh, thanks, but maybe another time,” Marceline replied dolefully. “My mother is probably wondering where I am, and I need to get home.”

“Oh, you can stay a while!” Juniper insisted. “We can sing one song. Maybe just one? Come on! It’ll be just like in the old days.”

Marceline thought about it. “Well… Maybe one song.”

“That’s my girl!” Juniper slapped her on the back, hard. Marceline had been away for too long, and had forgotten how hard Juniper could slap a person. She almost pitched forward down the stairs, giving a dangerous lurch in the direction that would mean tumbling headfirst. Juniper didn’t seem to notice. “Now come on. Let’s start right away!”

As Juniper lead her down the steps through the pews, Marceline took a closer look at everybody gathered for the music practice. Some of them were familiar, but most of them weren’t. She saw Bobby, a kid who liked fishing and mostly sat by himself; Heather, a quiet child that Marceline had talked to once in a while; George, a boy who started out nasty and was shrinking into himself when Marcey left; and a boy who everybody had called Turnip for a reason that Marcey never learned. Turnip had always wierded Marcey out as a child, and she found it strange that he was going to church. He had never struck her as a church-going person.

Eh. It had been years. Who knew what’d happened in her absence?

The few people that she knew and all the strangers – including the woman at the piano, a tall black-haired lady in a flaming red suit – sat down and prepared to sing. Henry went and stood at the pulpit.

Wait, wait, hold the phone. Juniper said he’d bought up the place, but the – what?

Henry wasn’t the pastor, was he?

Marceline’s thoughts jumped back to Charlie. He’d been the pastor ever since Marcey was in diapers – he’d been young then, about 30, but he was probably getting grey hairs by now. Where was he, anyway? After the church fell through, he almost seemed to disappear off the map, and for a long time she’d tried to get ahold of him with no avail. It was almost like he had just evaporated into the air, him and his whole family.

And you know, his wife might’ve given the church a hard time back in the day, but that didn’t mean Charlie was at fault!

Oh, wait, the song was starting (Henry had said something, and it was probably important, but Marceline had been too concerned with other things to listen). The lady at the piano began to ram her fingers frantically across the keys, and having grown up on hymns, the sound was like a hammer hitting Marcey’s skull.

Then the song slowed down a little bit, and it began to sound more like jazz or the like, swinging like a heavy axe.

The words weren’t familiar, either. It was all loud and fast and too difficult to sing. Marceline’s tongue tripped across the lyrics like it had gotten caught on the dot of an i, and she couldn’t catch or keep up.

It occurred to her that she hadn’t sang anything in a long time, nevermind something about Jesus.

Then, abruptly, the song reached its crescendo and came crashing down into a bombastic finale. The red-coated pianist bent down to catch her breath, and Henry congratulated them all on a job well done. Marcey began to get up, with a tense smile on her face.

“Wait, did you like it?” Juniper pleaded. “Please tell me you liked it!”

“Yes, yes, it was all very good, Juniper -” Marceline began to fiddle with her hat and mittens to give her nervous hands something to do. “I guess, growing up on hymns, I’m just not used to all this, uh, modern stuff.”

“Oh, I grew up on those too!” Juniper slapped Marceline again, guffawing. “They were always too slow.”

“What?” Marceline raised a brow. “What about Battle Hymn of the Republic? I thought you liked the hymns we grew up with.”

“Pssh, not anymore. I like this better.” Juniper kept laughing. “Hey, do you want to stay for another song?”

“I said one song, Juniper, I really have to get to mom’s house,” Marcey insisted.

Henry inexplicably appeared at Marcey’s side, almost startling her out of her skin. “Oh, yes, we’d really like it if you’d stay for another song! We can always use another backup singer.”

“Wait, what?” Marceline began to back up. “No no. I didn’t agree to anything. I said one song. I really have to go, guys. Catch up with you later, Juniper?”

“You really can’t stay?” asked Henry.

Marcey realized that the entire congregation was staring at her expectantly, as if pleading for her to sit back down and join them, all with huge eyes that gave her the impression of a large swarm of beetles.

She nearly fell out of the pew, staring wide-eyed at the mass of staring faces.

“No,” she said firmly, quite thoroughly disturbed. “I really cannot stay. Goodbye.”

She turned around and charged headfirst out of that church before anybody could say anything else. She slipped on the ice outside, slid down the first two steps down to the parking lot, got to her feet, and tiptoed quickly and carefully across the icy stairs and the parking lot to her sky blue Buick.

She got into her car, realized that her heart was pounding, and took a moment to readjust the rear-view mirrors to calm herself. She put her hands on the steering wheel, digging her nails into the fuzzy white cover, and looked out the windshield only to see Henry waving to her from the front door, with a big, pearly white grin.

She didn’t wave back. She turned on the car, backed out of her parking spot, and drove off without looking back.

Part 2 is in the works.