Saturday, May 12, 2012

"The Last Supper" by Ashley Suzanne Musick

I stepped into the grey half-light of the sanctuary, almost falling over as I did so. My head swam; I felt like I was about to vomit the meager amount of food I’d managed to gather together to make myself a breakfast that morning. I shivered; the room was as chilly as a breezy winter day. Sighing, I shook my head. Why has Deacon Summers not turned on the heat yet? I crept down the aisle, heading towards the altar. Suddenly, the rustling of a robe and the slap of rubber against concrete met my ears. “What are you doing?” a familiar voice said.

I turned, smiling, to face Deacon Summers. His countenance was still recognizable despite the radiation burns. “Hello,” I said.

“Oh.” Deacon Summers took a step back. “It’s just you.”

 I laughed. My cackle echoed throughout the sanctuary. “Didn’t you recognize me?” I said.

 Deacon Summers shook his head. “The radiation has disfigured you too much. Plus, you never know who it is until you look.” He cocked his head and shrugged. “For all I knew, you could have been someone breaking into the church to look for food.”

“You thought I was someone breaking into the church for food?” I raised an eyebrow. “Summers, did you forget what day it is?”

Deacon Summers frowned. “I don’t see much point in remembering the days any more, Reverend. They don’t matter anymore.”

I crossed my arms across my chest. “It’s Sunday, Summers.”

“So?”

A loud sigh escaped from between my lips. “So? We have to get the church lit and warm, prepare the altar and consecrate the Host and the wine!”

“Why?”

“Why?” I was now ready to burst with rage, but I contained myself. Alienating one’s friends was never a good idea, but this was especially true in these conditions. “In case someone wants to come to church and have communion — that’s why we have to do those things!”

Deacon Summers sighed. “I don’t think any members of our congregation are left to come to church and have communion. They’ve been dropping like flies since the attack due to the resulting radiation poisoning.”

I, frowning, put my hands on my hips. “We don’t know if all the congregants are dead yet; even if they are, what if some unbaptized person wants to come in and be baptized and have communion before they die?”

“Oh, all right. I get your point.” Deacon Summers shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s get to work then.” He turned away from me for a moment to flick a lighter open, then rotated his head to face me again. “I guess we need to have something to do with the little time we have left before the radiation poisoning kills us too.” He chuckled.

I frowned, crossing my arms. “That’s not a nice joke to make. Now get on with lighting the candles. I’ll get the heat going.”

“You’ll have to turn on the generator first.”

“You haven’t had the generator running?”

Deacon Summers shook his head.

“Then how have you been cooking and keeping warm?” I said.

“Been burning old church paperwork,” Deacon Summers said.

“Oh,” I said, uncertain of what to make of this piece of information. Why did he care so little about the church? Did he doubt humanity would ever recover from the attack and be able to replenish our depleted membership? I shook my head with a sigh. “I’ll go get the generator going.”

 #

 Half an hour later, little flames danced atop the altar candles, casting beams of their light around the church. Now, instead of the ugly dull grey it had been earlier, the interior had a golden hue. The gold-gilded cross and chalice glinted in the illumination. Instead of icy, the air inside the church was now the temperature of a sunny spring day.

“So, what do we do now?” Deacon Summers asked.

“We wait,” I answered.

“We wait?”

“Uh-huh.”

“For how long?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Until someone comes, I guess.”

“Until someone comes?” Deacon Summers gasped. “But that could be a very long time!”

I sighed. “I didn’t mean I’d stay here forever if no one came. If no one comes by tomorrow morning, I’ll leave and you can get back to whatever you do between Sundays.” I frowned as I pondered this. What does he do between Sundays? All I did was write a new sermon based on the Scripture readings for that week — a sermon no one ever got to hear. Suddenly, a thought hit me. I think I realize the reason he’s so resentful. “Would this bother you if you were the priest?”

Deacon Summers frowned, shaking his head.

Aha — my suspicion has been confirmed. “So you don’t like doing this since you’re the deacon, not the priest?” I said.

Deacon Summers, still frowning, nodded.

“You’re angry I got ordinated first so I became priest and you got stuck as a deacon?” I said.

Again Deacon Summers nodded.

I sighed. What a stupid thing to do — hold onto disappointment a decade later, especially in light of what had happened within the past few months. “Summers, after the nuclear holocaust we’ve been through, that shouldn’t matter anymore.”

Deacon Summers shrugged.

Suddenly, from behind me, came a squeak. I wheeled around to see one of the double doors open. A dark figure entered, its features indistinguishable until it came into the light. The hair was bundled and gray, the clothes were torn in places and dirty all over and the skin was wrinkled and covered with burns from radiation. She ambled down the hall, then plopped into the front pew.

I turned to Deacon Summers, leaned down and whispered into his ear. “Let’s get going,” I said.

With a frown, Deacon Summers nodded.

 #

I did the works; I even went out into the aisle when I read the Gospel from my giant red Bible with Deacon Summers holding the golden cross. Then, after the sermon, I came down from the pulpit to greet the lone congregant. With a smile, I shook her hand vigorously and wished the peace of the Lord on her. Deacon Summers also shook her hand, but didn’t smile or wish her the peace. Annoyance prickled me, but I remained silent. I didn’t want to ruin my first service in months. So, instead, I proceeded to the hymn for communion.

I consecrated the wafers and the wine slowly. Although I’d learned the words early in my twenties and repeated them numerous times during my life, in the time between this service and the last before the attack, the words had faded slightly. Thus, even though I spoke slowly, I still stumbled, causing my cheeks to burn. My last parishioner and I’m making myself a fool in front of her!

The congregant hobbled up to the altar rail. then eased herself down on her knees and held out her cupped hands. I set a wafer in her hands. “The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven,” I said ,then moved on, making way for Deacon Summers.

With a frown, Deacon Summers bent down and placed the chalice in her palms. “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” he said stiffly as the woman raised the chalice to her mouth and took a sip.

The woman rose then, suddenly, toppled. Her body collided back first with the flood and her head hit the pulpit with a sickening thud. She didn’t get up and her breath became rapid. I sighed. I knew what was happening. I’d seen it more than two dozen times before. I know what I have to do. I kneeled in front of the woman, crossed her forehead and spoke the hated words. “Christian soul, depart this world in peace,” I said. The woman’s breath slowed to a standstill. I didn’t need to feel for a heartbeat; I knew what had happened.

“So, when do we bury her?” Deacon Summers said behind me. “Next Sunday?”

I whipped my head around to face him. “No!” I said.

 “Just kidding!”

“We need to bury her now.”

 Deacon Summers frowned. “Why now?”

“The sun will be setting in the next several hours and digging the grave will take us that long.”

“But why do we have to bury her today?”

“We won’t be here tomorrow.”

“What!” Deacon Summers gasped. “Why? Where are we going?”

I didn’t answer immediately; instead, I lifted the stiffening corpse of the woman and slung it over my shoulder. I jerked my head towards the doors. “Out there.”

“’Out there’? You’ve got to be kidding me!”

I shook my head as much as I could with the woman slung over my shoulder.

 “Why?” Deacon Summers pressed.

“Well, as you said earlier, we need something to do before we die of radiation poisoning too and there’s nothing for us to do around here anymore; this was our last congregant.”

 What are we going to do ‘out there’?” Deacon Summers jerked his head towards the doors.

“Preach,” I said. “If we must die too, at least we can take as many souls as possible with us to Heaven.”

Deacon Summers nodded.

“You can stay here if you want,” I said, “since I know you detest how I’m the priest and you aren’t.”

Deacon Summers shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “You’re right.” He sighed. “That doesn’t matter anymore. I’ll come with you.”

I nodded in acknowledgement of his statement. “Then let’s get busy digging. As soon as we’re done with the funeral, we’ve got a lot of packing to do.”

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