Charlotte Hale tried to obey the law. She paid strict attention to street signs and rarely risked a yellow light. She drove in the passing lane on the interstate only if she absolutely had to. She was a decent enough driver, except for one flaw. She had never learned to park.
Knowing her limits, most of the time she improvised. She was guilty of lingering in no-parking zones, and leaving her car in a traffic lane with the blinkers on. If she was lucky enough to find a large enough space to park along the curb, she fed the meter well past the time limit, and even in less challenging slots she often overshot the lines meant to separate her car from others. Consequently, despite being a perfectionist in every other way, she had learned to live with scrapes on her side panels and tickets on her windshield. Through the years she had paid enough citations to fund a personal meter maid.
Today, when she stepped out of her car and into the lot behind Asheville's Church of the Covenant, she saw she was taking up almost two feet of the space beside her. Since there were still plenty of other spaces available, she decided not to try again. She had no sense of entitlement. It was just better to stay where she was than risk a worse landing.
The late-afternoon breeze was as soft as azalea petals, and the only sounds were cars passing on the street and birds high in towering trees. She turned toward the church. Her heels clattered against the stone path, which looked as if it had been newly washed by their diligent sexton, Felipe. Apparently Felipe had also taken to heart the grounds committee’s suggestion that the boxwood lining the path needed more severe pruning. This afternoon the hedge looked as if it had recently squirmed under the hands of a boot-camp barber.
Luck was with her. Felipe or someone had unlocked the front door and wedged it open, perhaps to let a touch of sunshine inside. She was heartened that she didn't have to go next door to the parish house to beg the key or wait for the secretary to unlock the door for her.
If the air outside was warm and mountain-meadow fresh, inside it was neither. As always, the sanctuary felt faintly damp and old smells lingered. Women's perfume, the moldering pages of hymnals, candle wax and Sunday's lilies from the chancel.
The sanctuary was voluminous, with massive ribbed vaults overhead and wide aisles flanking the nave.. Sometimes the room felt like a cavern, sometimes a crypt. Usually, though, even Charlotte, whose head was normally filled with other things, felt a sense of peace, as if fragments of prayers that had been whispered for more than a century still fluttered overhead.
Today she just felt dwarfed by the empty sanctuary, smaller than a speck of dust. And while humility before God was important—and in her case, overdue—this afternoon she needed warmth and comfort, and hoped God wouldn't begrudge her either.
She found herself moving toward the side chapel, where light streamed through brilliantly colored windows, and she could hear the birds beyond them.
In a pew at the front she bowed her head. She hadn't stepped foot in a church in weeks, nor in those weeks had she mumbled even a prepackaged prayer. Since childhood, church attendance had always been a given, the need for it drummed into her by a grandmother for whom prayer had been the only barricade against defeat. Now, as she tried to formulate a prayer and failed, she realized how odd it was that at a crossroads in her own life, when most people turned to God, all outward manifestations of her faith had simply vanished.
Charlotte closed her eyes, hoping to connect with something larger than herself, but instead she felt herself falling into a void as dark and limitless as a night sky without stars. Her eyelids flew open, and she could hear her own heart beating. Perspiration filmed her cheeks and dampened her hair, and even though her hands were folded in her lap, they trembled.
The stillness of the chapel seemed to close in around her, as if to ask why she was there. She couldn't find words, and her mind fluttered from image to image with no place to land. But there was something else the church could offer.
There were no confession booths at the Church of the Covenant, and Charlotte's minister was younger than she was, stylish and outspoken. They had butted heads on so many occasions that now Charlotte wondered if, deep in her heart, Reverend Analiese Wagner would find pleasure in her turmoil.
Yet where else could she go? Who else could she talk to?
For a woman who had always had answers for everybody, she was surprised to learn how few of them really meant anything.