PERISH AT THE PRESENCE OF GOD
A short story by Diane Fanning
excerpted from RED BOOTS & ATTITUDE
She awoke, flat on her back on a strange bed. Across the room, red boots perched on top of a chest of drawers. She recognized the boots. They were hers. But she did not recognize the chest of drawers, its finish darkened almost black by age. No pictures on the walls. No books on shelves. No mementoes of someone’s life. There was nothing in sight to jog her memory. Where was she? And how did she get here?
Her hands swarmed over her body. All her garments were right where they should be found. She felt the soft cotton of the t-shirt, the firmness of the bra beneath. Her fingers touched the rough denim of her jeans, floated over the lump of panty leg elastic. She looked down at her stocking feet. She rose from bed and winced. Every muscle screamed protest at the slightest movement. She rattled the doorknob. Locked. She went to the window across from the door and pulled up the blinds. On the other side of the glass, shutters tightly sealed away the view. Panic started in the center of her chest. She rushed to the other window with a prayer on my lips. It, too, was cut off from the outside world by shutters.
Where was she? Maybe she should know. What did she know? She knew she was Cici, short for Cecilia Taylor, born and raised in Poteet. She knew she was a recent graduate of Southwest Texas State University, living at home with her parents while she looked for a job.
“Am I still in Poteet?” When she realized she had spoken aloud, she squirmed in discomfort And, still, she had not answered the big question.
Again, she searched the room for some clue to her location. She opened a door next to the dresser…nothing but a closet. Nothing on the floor. Nothing on the shelf. Nothing on the closet rod except for four empty, misshapen coat hangers.
She turned back to the dresser to rifle through drawers. Nothing in any of them except in the bottom one, where a folded spare blanket lay. She picked it up, shook it out, nothing more.
She opened the drawer of the nightstand. Inside she found a bible—a red leather Scofield Reference Bible. Brown wear spots on the edge of the spine showed that someone had handled it quite often. Gold letters on the lower right hand corner spelled out the name of the owner, Millicent Pearsall. The name jogged something deep in her memory banks, troubled her momentarily, then flew away.
She looked back at the bed. Its wooden frame had the same age-darkened finish as the chest of drawers. In a couple of spots, something had recently scratched thin, deep lines into the wood. A white chenille bedspread—the kind everyone’s grandmother had—was worn thin as dust allowing a pale shimmer of blue from the blanket beneath to shine through it.
Down on all fours, she looked under the bed. Nothing but a few stray dust bunnies. The room held no clues to its owner with the exception of that Bible. The name Millicent Pearsall danced in faded gold before her eyes. Again, she could not jiggle loose anything meaningful.
She closed her eyes and sniffed deeply. The room smelled stuffy. Sitting down on the bed’s edge, she focused her energy on listening. It was eerily quiet, an occasional chirp of a bird. No sound of any voices. No barking dogs. No grind of machinery. She thought she heard the distinctive swooshing roar of interstate traffic but it was so distant it could have been her imagination.
A smile tiptoed across her face, as she latched onto the possibility that she was the victim of a practical joke. “Yeah, that’s it. One of my doofus friends must think this is really funny. So where was I last night? Pico’s? And yeah, I was drinking margaritas …lots of them. Did I pass out?
“Who was there? Who has a stupid sense of humor? Crap. Whoever it was is probably sitting in their car outside, fighting off giggles, waiting for me to lose my cool and start screaming. Who could it be? Kathy? She’s just whacked enough to think this is funny. And she was at Pico’s last night. But, jeez, if it was eighty-two pound Kathy she couldn’t have gotten me here single-handed. No way.”
There were too many blank spots in her memory of last night. She had a momentary disgust with herself for her overindulgence. She quickly dismissed it. She hadn’t locked herself in this room. It was someone else’s fault. Not hers.
She returned to a window, grabbed hold of the pulls and shoved upward, grunting hard with the effort. Her cheeks turned bright red and sweat popped out on her forehead. She dropped her arms in defeat then laughed at herself. The latch was fastened shut. She flicked it open and tugged again, straining even harder. It did not budge. That’s when she noticed the spike-like nails driven deep into the sash, clutching the window in place. She dashed to the other window where a matching pair of nails greeted her. The hope that this was just a practical joke dissolved like sugar in hot tea.
Thirst and hunger overtook her thoughts. She paced across the room. Back and forth. Back and forth. In a room that felt like a cell.
She came to an abrupt stop facing the door. Hinges. If she removed the hinges, she thought, she could force her way out of the room. Her fingers grappled with the top hinge, then the bottom one. She pushed. She pulled. She pried with her fingernails. She pounded with her fists. Slumping against the wall, she sobbed at her damaged nails.
She needed a tool or anything she could use as a tool. Something that could give her leverage under the hinge pin. She jumped to her feet and scurried around the room, eyes roaming, hands patting. Nothing. The hangers! She threw open the closet door and jerked one off the rod. She struggled to get the hanger wedged under the top edge of the pin on the hinges. She bent and twisted the wire again and again. Repeatedly she slammed her knuckles into the hinges’ stubborn metal.
When her bruised knuckles bled, she collapsed to the floor and beat the hanger into the carpet. Bitter tears flowed, then morphed into cries of pain and rage. “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” The relentless mantra blocked out all thought.
She indulged in self-pity and frustration until her eyes itched and her throat ached. One last teeth-clenching scream and she realized the room was darkening. She rose to her feet sniffling, rubbing her eyes.
She laid down flat on her back on the bed atop the bed cover. All she wanted to do was sleep. She would know what to do in the morning. Fully clothed, she slid between the sheets. Her thirst, hunger and bloated bladder made comfort an impossible dream.
She sat up and twisted the lamp switch. Desperate for distraction, she pulled the bible out of the night table. Millicent Pearsall. The name made her head pound. She threw the book open. She flipped through the pages. Song of Solomon caught her eyes. It had always been a favorite book of hers since middle school when she and Marisue Schneider sat in the back pew of the church blushing over the provocative passages.
She shuffled back and forth from the Old Testament to the New reading a verse here and a verse there. Then she found the 39th Psalm: “Deliver me from my enemies, O my God: defend me from them that rise against me.” This was the spiritual advice she sought. Psalms was a book full of vengeance. A book where enemies are “withered like herbs,” and where they “perish at the presence of God.”
She read on, reassured by the validation of her innocence and by promises of revenge. Clothed in an awkward self-woven cloak of righteousness, Cici drifted to sleep. The open bible draped across her chest rose and fell with each breath. The light of the lamp watched over her.
Her eyes flew open. What had awakened her? She heard the sound of shuffling feet and a scraping on the walls. Instinctively, she switched off the light, riveting her hearing on the noises. They were definitely from inside the house. Was it an animal? Maybe. Maybe not. The thought of a rescuer just feet away exploded in her head.
She bounded from the bed. “Help! Help!” She pounded on the door. “Whoever you are, get me out of here.” No response. Nothing. She strained to hear any sign of movement.
Finally, she could hear something—the glugging of liquid, a splashing sound, the surreptitious whisper of movement. “Let me out of here!” She kicked the door till her toes throbbed. “Kathy? Is that you? This isn’t funny anymore. Let me out.” She strained to listen again. Were those footsteps coming up a carpeted hall? A grin crossed her face. She playfully rattled the doorknob. “Okay, I give. Good one, Kathy. You win. You scared me good.”
She heard a rattle of paper and the sound of retreating footsteps. “Hey!” She beat on the door with her fists. She slapped it with her palms. “This isn’t funny, guys. Come on! Let me out!” No response.
Cici saw a piece of newsprint sticking under the door. As she bent to retrieve it, she sniffed the distinctive odor of gasoline wafting between the gap of the door and the floor. Tears stung her eyes. She read the headline on The Pleasanton Express: “Poteet High Senior Killed in Head-On Collision.”
Her head pounded. Her teeth chattered. She dropped to the floor. Staring at the photo of the crushed, charred car, the memory returned in a rush.
Kurt Longenecker was definitely the cutest guy at Poteet High. Every girl with a trace of hormones in her blood stream drooled in his wake as he strutted up the hall. He was a conquest worth pursuing. And Cici pursued him with vigor. When her first overtures were rebuffed, she accelerated from subtle to blatant. But, for the first time in her life, she did not succeed. Kurt only had eyes for Sally Phillips. Her friends needled her about her fading charms. She had to pay him and that stupid Sally back to save face.
One sunny April day after school, Cici was tooling around with Kathy and a couple other girlfriends in a borrowed yellow Mustang convertible. Cici and Kathy sat in the back. They came up behind a purple Hyundai Excel traveling at the speed limit. The Mustang hugged the Hyundai’s bumper.
“Oh, look, Cici. It’s your boyfriend,” Kathy teased.
There was Kurt in Sally’s car. Cici blushed with frustration and anger.
A challenge came back from the front seat. “Whatcha gonna do, Cici? Is it payback time yet?”
“I’m gonna show him what he’s missing. That’s what I’m gonna do.” She pulled her shirt over her head and reached back to unfasten her bra. “Missy, drive up next to them on the shoulder. I’m gonna give that boy an eyeful.”
As they came even with Sally’s car, the honking Mustang caused the Hyundai to swerve slightly to the left as the driver startled. Cici sat up on her knees sideways on the seat and thrust out her breasts.
When Sally saw Cici’s bared chest, she laid her foot on the accelerator. Her eyes left the road as she focused them on Kurt. Kurt’s wide-opened eyes could not turn away from the vision in the car beside him. The girls in the other car could not hear what Sally was saying but they could tell she was screaming at Kurt. They laughed at her outrage.
Sally’s car drifted into the wrong lane as the girl focused on her boyfriend. Her foot maintained its pressure on the gas pedal causing the Hyundai to keep accelerating in an attempt to outrun the Mustang. Over the rise, a large farm truck loaded with hay came into view. The girls saw it first. They honked the horn, pointed their fingers and shouted. But Sally was oblivious to the road ahead. When Cici pulled on her t-shirt and jabbed her hand at the oncoming truck, Kurt turned and saw the looming threat. His mouth flew open. Sally’s head snapped to the front. She jerked the steering wheel, lunging for the left shoulder and safety. It was too late. The loaded truck plowed into the passenger side of the small purple blot in its path. The car flipped once, landing in a ditch. Smoke poured from its undercarriage.
The Mustang screeched to a halt. The panicked girls exchanged glances, then without a word, sped from the scene in a cloud of shredded hay and dry yellow dust. Emergency workers declared Kurt Longenecker dead at the scene. They rushed Sally Phillips to the hospital—her condition critical.
Two months after the accident, Cici received a plain, white envelope with no return address. Inside, a folded piece of lined notebook paper proclaimed: “You will die!!!!!!” There was no signature but Cici knew. She had not thought about that note for a long time. She could not forget it now.
She jumped to her feet and punished the door again. “Sally? Sally, is that you? Let me out of here. It must be you, Sally. You won’t get away with killing me. Let me out now.” All she heard in response was the unmistakable click of a door latch snapping shut. Nothing more.
The gold letters on the red bible swam before her eyes. Millicent Pearsall. Sally Phillips lived with her grandmother. Her grandmother died last year. Her grandmother—Millicent Pearsall.
The roar and the crackle of the building flames lapped on the other side of the door. The first telltale wisps of smoke drifting in around the door frame. She grabbed the lamp on the nightstand, jerked the cord out of the wall and smashed it into the closest window. She broke the pane of glass but shattered the base of the lamp as she did it, cutting her hand.
Sobbing, she grabbed a red boot off the dresser and shoved her fist deep inside. She pounded out glass shards with an intense ferocity. Now fresh air poured into the window creating a draft that feed the fire. Flames licked around the door and smoke filled the room.
Instructions jumbled through Cici’s thoughts. “Drop to the floor. No! You’ve got to get out of here. Cover your mouth. No! You’ve got to get through the window.” She pounded the heel on the wooden barrier at the spot where the outside latch fastened the shutters closed. They bowed from the impact but the latch held. The smoke grew thicker. She pulled the boot on her foot. She kicked the barred shutters once. She heard the satisfying crack of splintering wood. She raised her foot to kick again but lost her balance and could not rise. She slumped on the floor, surrendering her the oxygen in her lungs to the dark demanding smoke.
Sally sat on a small boulder on the side of the road watching the rising smoke and the flicker of the flames as her grandmother’s house burned to the ground. When enough time had passed to achieve her purpose, she rose and dusted off the seat of her pants. She sauntered over to her twelve-year-old Buick Riviera and sped down the road to the nearest neighbor and dialed 9-1-1.