The mire road turned to gravel, and my car finally sprung up from sinking into the Earth. My tires squealed to a halt, as I glanced one last time into the rearview. It wasn't my "Sunday-best" but given the circumstances, an old polo and jeans would have to do. I hadn't missed a service in three years, and I didn't feel like starting now…even if home was 400 miles away.
I unbuckled and scooted off the seat, feeling the suspension breathe as my sneakers hit the morning dew. I looked around, taking in the stillness of a Sunday dawn in the mountains. Amidst the tree-line was an ensemble of fresh faces, dressed in a smile and buttoned-up suits or fine dresses. I returned the gesture with a wave, shutting the car door as I made my way to the building.
The chapel was small and quaint; nestled in a clearing of trees. It wasn't winter yet, but I could only imagine how easily the bright whiteness of the steeple would camouflage into the snow-covered hills.
As my shoes shuffled to the front doors, I could hear the hum of an organ. I cleared my throat, nodding a silent 'thank you' to a well-dressed man holding the door open for me.
There was a musk from within the church that hit me as I stepped inside. It smelled like history...as if every wall had a story to tell. My shoes, still damp from the wet grass, squeaked until I reached a carpeted corridor lined with pews that led to a brass-colored alter. It felt like every head turned to greet me; some with smiles and others draped in a somber stare. I nodded as I leaned back into the fuzzy pew, sighing as I reached for my phone.
"Good morning." A raspy old man's voice said.
"Good morning." I smiled, tucking my phone between my legs.
"First timer, huh?" The man said as he scooted across me, sitting about a foot down the pew.
"I'm just visiting from Atlanta," I said. The man smiled, nodded, and turned to face the altar. My eyes followed to a man now center-stage. The man was dressed in a black button-down shirt with stark black pants, his hair was slick, and his smile was wide.
"Good morning." The congregation echoed back.
"I'm glad you're all here today, on this most joyous of Sunday traditions." The man stepped down from the stage and began walking down the carpeted aisle, "It is our duty to celebrate the mighty and sovereign power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and today we will reflect on His sacrifice with one of our own."
The man bowed his head in reverence.
"Father, may the harvest be bountiful. In this sacrifice, we lift all we have to you. Amen."
As the crowd echoed in an agreeable 'amen', the organ cried out with a chorus, calling out three deacons holding baskets to collect a tithe.
My eyes shot down, slightly embarrassed. I didn't accompany any cash with me. Before I could even lift my head, I felt the warmth of a hand on my shoulder. The old man. He lifted the small basket before me with a smile. I took it, depositing a glance inside. The basket was full to the brim. There must've been thousands of dollars stuffed into the thing.
I then felt a presence hovering over me: the deacon. I looked up and masked my confusion with a smile. The deacon took the basket and walked out of sight.
"Father," rang from the pulpit, "-it is written, to live is Christ, and to die is gain." the preacher spoke as he lifted a golden chalice, "-today we celebrate your promise as we gain life eternal."
Another 'amen' echoed around me, as the preacher cleared his throat.
"Before we partake in the Lord's communion, I would like to extend a warm welcome to my successor, Pastor Jacobson, who will be leading next Sunday's service."
The crowd erupted in applause as a tall man in a suit and tie walked to the center stage, gripping the preacher's hand.
"Join me as we pray for the future of our ministry." The preacher said, bowing his head.
The room fell silent as every head lowered. The occasional cough snapped me out of a paralyzing stillness.
I should've walked out then and there.
"Amen." The preacher declared, prompting the deacons to, once again, emerge from the recesses of the chapel. Each one carried a small tray: one filled with slivers of bread and the other with cups of wine.
"On the night in which He was betrayed our Lord ate this bread and drank this wine, declaring His life as a sacrifice. His body and blood offered for us." The preacher said, cueing the deacons to descend each row of the church.
"Today, we share His death and thereby gain a life everlasting, brothers and sisters."
My feet grew numb and my toes curled in my shoes. The deacon approached me, outstretching his hand with a slice of bread. I took it. He extended the cup. I hesitantly grabbed it, too.
I glanced over at the old man beside me out of the corner of my eye. He wore a large smile across his face, as the deacon passed him the bread and wine.
"This is my body. Eat of it." The preacher said, I scanned the room as everyone chewed up the small sliver of bread. I didn't move.
"This is my blood. Drink of it."
I watched as everyone chugged the tiny cups of wine.
The woman two rows in front of me was the first one to drop. No one even screamed. I turned to the old man. His chin was lathered in a thick, white foam. His smile widened at me before he went limp, his head hitting the pew in front of him as he fell to the floor.
In unison, all three deacons collapsed. My eyes shifted to a woman vomiting on the floor. She gasped for a moment, then fell dormant.
I watched as the preacher smiled, raising his eyes to the ceiling. I watched him mouth something silently as a gush of bubbling foam spurt from his mouth. His face drooped before his body fell unconscious.
My stomach twisted as I pinched my eyes shut. I heard thuds ricochet from around the room, only muffled by the thick carpet. The organ's hum ceased, accompanied by another loud thud that shook the air.
When I finally had the stomach to open my eyes, I found myself alone in the pews. Scanning the room once more, I noticed Pastor Jacobson standing in the middle of the stage, praying.
I rose from my seat, the wooden pew creaking beneath me. Pastor Jacobson opened his eyes and looked across the room at me. We must've stared at one another for a good thirty seconds before I felt the adrenaline kick into my legs.
I didn't look back, nor did I have the stomach to. I pushed open the front doors and ran through the grass to my car. I turned the key and floored it as my tires shot dirt ten feet into the air.
As I reached the main highway, pressing my foot, still trembling, against the brakes, I was flushed with a bittersweet wave of reprieve and panic. I shot a glance into the rearview; nothing. The winding street lay in silence behind me, the wet dirt reflecting the glow of a fluorescent sign that read: See You This Sunday!