Thursday, October 11, 2012
SANCTUARY (The Runaway--XVIII)
A gust tore the box from them. Josh chased after it, the swirling white pelting his face like barbs, but the box tumbled up the embankment, down the black street. When he returned to the underpass, Nikko swayed on his knees, hugging himself. The others were gone, their fires snuffed by the storm.
“Nikko, we gotta go.”
He pulled Nikko into a standing position. Nikko’s arm hung over his shoulder, a dead weight. They stumbled up the embankment. An eerie hush settled on the street. They passed doorway after doorway, each already filled with bags and blankets. Slush turned Josh’s feet icy wet, then numb. Streetlights illuminated the falling snow and Josh imagined each flake a ghost dancing, a forgotten soul.
He pressed Nikko against a store window to catch his breath. Nikko watched him with sleepy eyes. In the window, surrounded by a stack of yellow pottery bowls, a tarnished flute, rare books, a guitar. A Gibson. Mother-of-pearl inlay twinkled on the fret board.
Nikko slowly turned. His jacket drooped, exposing the yin-yang symbol tattooed on his left shoulder.
“It looks like my guitar,” Josh said. His lips felt thick when he spoke. “I miss my uncle. I miss playing. He lived here once, went to Berklee College for music.”
Nikko nodded, a single solemn movement. His scarf fluttered to the ground. Falling snow covered it in seconds. “You were brilliant.”
The way he said it in past tense pissed Josh off, made him want to slug Nikko, but instead he bent to pick up the scarf, but his fingers would not bend. He left the scarf and pulled Nikko close. They continued down the street. Snow whipped around them. Josh told him a little further, just a little further, and at the corner, past a black-spiked iron fence that pierced the falling white, they stopped to rest.
“Tired.” Nikko tottered towards the wide stone stairs leading to the building’s entrance. Josh yanked him back, by his bad arm. Nikko yelped.
“Not here, Nikko. You’ll die.”
Nikko slid to the bottom step. Josh’s knees trembled. He dropped beside his friend. Snow slid down his neck, down his back, cold at first but then just wet. Flakes tangled in Nikko’s eye lashes, his hair, the white dusted them like marble statues in the Public Garden, so still, so white, and he closed his eyes, the cold peeled away, and the snow, and the chortle of birds melded into the white hot glaze of summer.
“See him,” Nikko murmured in his ear. “Your uncle. After.”
After. After what? Nikko snuffled through his nose, already asleep. Josh pushed up, certain the storm would swallow him, swallow his friend, and he would be alone.
“Nikko! Get the fuck up!”
Josh kicked him in the side, hard enough to make Nikko swat at him, and that was when Josh saw the sign. Snow covered the front, the bulb from the overhead light smeared snow down the glass but still, he saw the words in proper black: Sunday Services 10 to 11. All are welcome.
He craned his neck to make sure. Snow eddied around the building. The wind ebbed, the church spire shone against the grey night. Josh hurried up the icy steps. Snow cleaved to the heavy red doors. He felt for the handle, found a metal latch and pulled, but the door failed to budge. He pounded against the wood, snow dropping in clumps, until he found the other handle. The door creaked open.
“Oh God, oh sweet God.”
He hurried down the steps.
“Nikko… come on, come on… we’re at a church… just a few more steps.”
He propped Nikko against the railing and squatted before him on the sidewalk. “Get on me, my back… come on.”
Nikko collapsed on him. Josh staggered up. With Nikko on his back, Josh mounted each step with a grunt. The wind pushed against them, against the door, but Josh finally wedged it open.
They stumbled onto the stone floor of the foyer. Nikko lay beside him, not moving. Dim light glowed from far away. Josh made out choir robes draped over hangers, hymnals stacked on shelves, a vase of daffodils, yellow petals fluttering in some draft, rare golden birds or, perhaps, angels, ready to float through the ceiling, the swirling snow, to some warmer, safer place.
All Josh wanted was to sleep on that stone floor, warmer and softer than anything he had laid on in many weeks. Just for a few minutes. But he forced himself up. Light filtered through a glass door. Illuminated stained glass windows lined the sanctuary, casting the vast room in hues of gold and red and blue. Rows of pews led to the pulpit, a hulking shadow. A single yellow beam of light pinpointed a silver chalice perched on the altar.
“Guess what Nikko? We’re in a goddamn UU church!”
Nikko did not move.
“Come on, get up.”
Josh leaned over and pulled him to a sitting position. Nikko’s head wobbled on his neck. Melted snow streaked down his red cheeks, making him look as though he was crying.
“Okay. Okay then.”
Josh laid his friend back on the floor. He propped open the glass door with his backpack and pulled Nikko by the ankles. Nikko groaned when they crossed the threshold, where the stone foyer ended and the carpeted sanctuary began.
Josh managed to pull Nikko onto all fours. Nikko swayed on his hands and knees.
“Crawl,” Josh said “Pretend you’re a dog. A baby. Like this.”
Nikko raised his head, his eyes like coal. Sweat or melted snow dripped down his forehead. He placed one hand out, then the other. His knees followed.
“Good,” Josh said. “This way.”
Nikko crawled after Josh. At the end of the aisle, Josh turned back. Nikko huddled on the floor, curled into fetal position. Josh pulled him up, holding Nikko under his arms, then pushed with his shoulder. The carpet crushed under their hands and knees. They crab-walked together across the back of the sanctuary and down the side aisle where it was darker. Josh dragged Nikko into a box pew hidden behind one of the columns. He placed a cushion under Nikko’s head and in the shadow it seemed as if Nikko rested on a pillow of forest moss.
“Sleep,” Josh said. “I’ll find food.”
Nikko shuddered once. Josh tucked his coat around his friend’s shoulders. The door to the pew clicked behind him. Gold pipes gleamed from the balcony, rising through the dark like a lost city. Josh had always wanted to play a real organ, one with pipes and pedal stops, not the crappy electronic keyboard at church. He imagined the power of the low D, how the windows would rattle when he banged out Kashmir. Josh’s face felt tight and unfamiliar; it seemed forever since he had smiled.
Two more installments until the end. You do want to know how this story ends, don't you? Thank you, as always, for reading my words. Peace...