Last Step Down the Aisle
The sound of the piano in the sanctuary crescendos. I fight back a wave of nausea as two ushers pull back the double doors, revealing row after row of overflowing pews. It’s the same little church that I saw every Sunday morning growing up, but Cottonwood Baptist seems even smaller today. The walls feel too close, the ceiling too low. Taking a deep breath, I will myself to step away from the safety of the foyer. The thick bouquet of blue hydrangeas and baby’s breath shake in my hand, and I can only pray it isn’t noticeable. There’s no reason to be nervous – I keep telling myself – just move one foot at a time.
Looking up, I see Christopher. He stands at the altar like something out of a dream, backlit by the late-afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass. He’s nervous. I can see it written all over his face, even from the back of the church. His brows are furrowed, deepening a crease in his forehead that hasn’t always been there. Is he happy? I can’t tell from here. So with a deep breath, I step into the aisle.
He looks up and our eyes meet. For the briefest of moments, everyone in the room fades. We are no longer adults, but rather those two ten-year old kids who once ran wild in the fields behind this very church.
I remember the day, a million summers ago, when the sunflowers had grown so tall that you could get lost in them. We were neighbors, he and I, living just down the lane from the little white church with its peeling paint and crooked steeple. We were hiding from Hannah, who was counting to fifty before setting out to catch us. I took his hand in mine and we ran through the sunflowers, not stopping until we were too far for my 8-year-old sister to find us.
We finally reached the fence that held Mr. Hansen’s cattle and leaned against it, breathless, careful to avoid the metal barbs designed to keep livestock in and children out. In the dying light of that summer day, he reached up to capture a lightning bug that had stopped to rest on the stem of one of the sunflowers towering over us. It seemed content in his hand. Not once did it try to escape as we lowered ourselves to the ground.
We gazed at it with that innocent wonder that only children seem to have. It paced up and down the length of Christopher’s palm, stopping twice to lift its wings as though about to take flight. Each time it lowered them instead, happy to stay a little while longer.
“It reminds me of you,” he said as a golden glow flickered across his palm.
“I remind you of a bug?” I teased.
“No,” he replied, his blue eyes softening as they met mine. “It’s just that little light it puts off – it makes me think of you. You make things feel bright, and happy,” he sighed. “Even if they aren’t.”
That faraway look crept onto his face. I had seen it before, anytime his thoughts drifted towards home. I think it was easier for him to forget what went on inside his four walls when we were tucked away behind unending rows of sunflowers, but every now and again I could see that quiet sadness return – even in our little hideaway. It was a sadness born from hearing his mother cursed and criticized. It came from the yelling, the shouts, the words cruel enough to cause a child to blame himself for the sins of his father.
“I’m going to be different than him,” he said quietly. “I’m going to be better.” He set his jaw in a way that was foreign to his gentle face. Never sure of what to say when he spoke of home, I let his words float away – unanswered.
He leaned back on his elbows, careful not to disturb our new little friend. I lay down beside him and stared up at Cottonwood’s steeple that was barely visible over the wall of sunflowers. He laced the fingers of his free hand through mine as the firefly continued its exploration of the other.
My ten-year-old self didn’t fully understand the look on his face when he turned his head towards me. But when he brought his face to mine and planted the smallest of kisses on my lips, I began to realize that something was changing between us – something important.
“I’m gonna marry you one day, Emily. Here at this church,” he nodded towards the steeple. “And when it’s over, we’ll come outside and catch more fireflies.”
“Do you promise?” I asked. Without a word, he stood and pulled me to my feet. He lifted his hand, encouraging the firefly to take flight.
“I promise. We’ll start by finding this one again.”
We watched it fly upward – a beacon to its fellow winged lanterns. It escaped over the fields of summer rye and lazy cattle, sending us the briefest of signals as though daring us to follow.
Now more than ever I wish we could run outside and chase that firefly into those endless fields – the two of us alone like it once was. But there are at least a hundred pairs of eyes on me as I draw nearer to the altar. His own still haven’t left my face. I have to remind myself to breathe. Left foot. Right foot. Keep moving forward. I’m close enough now that I can see the way his tie is slightly crooked. He has that familiar disheveled look to him, even now on his one day as a groom. It looks as though he stepped out of the shower and shook his hair out twice before coming here. That’s how he’s always been, and something about this constancy settles the violent waves inside of my chest. Though life is on the verge of changing, he is still the same boy who told me he loved me at ten years old and proved it to me summer after summer when the sunflowers would awaken from their winter’s slumber and stretch towards the heavens. Christopher and I always found our way back to that hidden field.
The older we became, the later we’d stay within those thick walls of green and yellow. One innocent kiss turned into two, which turned into many, until exploration of those endless fields one day turned into exploration of one another.
Skin wet with sweat and midnight dew, we lay on our backs and stared up at Cottonwood’s steeple. The cross at the top stood ever-vigilant over the night, filling my stomach with something akin to shame.
“Is this wrong, what we’re doing?” I asked him that night in mid-July. The heat from the day sat unbroken, clinging to the earth long after the sun had crept below the distant hills. With his eyes still closed, he raised a brow and turned his head towards me.
“I guess it depends,” he replied, his voice thick with encroaching sleep.
“On who you ask.”
“Well, I’m asking you.”
“Then no, it’s not wrong.” He wrapped his arm tighter around my shoulder and buried his face in my tangled mess of hair. “We’re almost seventeen, and I’m gonna marry you in a few years anyways.”
“And then what?” I asked. He pulled far enough away to study my face.
“Then we’ll be married.”
“Yes, I got that part. But then what? Will we live here, or move to the city, or to a whole other state?”
He remained quiet for too long, and I wished I could inhale hard enough to pull the questions back inside. But once they were out, they hung around us like gnats in the afternoon heat.
“We’d stay here, wouldn’t we?” he asked, all traces of sleepiness gone as he sat up. “Mr. Hansen already said he’d take me on full-time after I graduate. I figure he’ll sell me some land cheap one day, and we can build our home out here.”
“But what about college? What about jobs, and traveling? There’s so much outside of Cottonwood, don’t you want to see it?”
“Well sure, I guess. But can’t we live here and still go see those things?”
I stared up at that crooked steeple. It had been in that same place, solid and unchanging, for nearly a century. So had most of the families in town.
“I don’t think we would, Chris. If we stay here, we may never get anywhere.”
“Isn’t this somewhere?” he snapped. I felt my shoulders stiffen.
“I’m sorry.” He sighed, frustration creeping into his voice. “It’s just not that easy for me. Do you know what would happen if I left? Dad hasn’t laid a finger on Mom or my brothers since I’ve grown strong enough to stop him. He’s scared of me, Emily, and that’s the only thing that keeps him in check. She’ll never leave him. So, I need to stay.”
His eyes held a look so hopeless that I could only nod. My eyes burned with tears I wouldn’t let fall – not when he was the one who had a right to cry.
“But,” he tilted my chin up to face him, “I know I can happily live anywhere as long as you’re there. Even if it’s right here in Cottonwood. Can’t you?”
“Of course,” I said without hesitation.
Later, when the moon had crept back down in the inky sky, we walked away from our hidden field for the last time that summer. Senior year loomed in front of us like a bridge to God-only-knows where. At least that’s how I saw it. I imagine all he was able to see on the other side was Mr. Hansen’s cattle ranch.
That’s exactly where I found him the day I left. My clothes and books and dreams were all packed neatly in the trunk of my parents’ car, and though we had a long drive to the airport ahead of us, they both gave me an understanding smile when I said I needed to take a quick walk before we left.
Christopher’s old Chevrolet was the only truck in the gravel driveway leading to the ranch. Mr. Hansen had left him with a trailer full of square hay bales to unload, and he was stacking them next to the stables when I walked up. I watched him for a moment, trying to commit every inch to memory.
“I’m sorry to bother you at work,” I said when he noticed me standing at the gate. “I had to see you one more time before we left.”
“I’m glad you came.” He ran up to me and wrapped his arms around my shoulders, pulling me as close as possible with the iron gate still between us.
“I think this has been my favorite summer yet,” I whispered, my face pressed tight against his chest.
“Mine too.” He pulled away enough to slide his leather gloves off and dust them against his worn Levi’s before shoving them into his back pocket. I took his hands in mine, rubbing the calluses formed from the weeks spent working long days for Mr. Hansen.
“Thanksgiving is only three months away, you know.”
“This may end up being the longest three months of my life,” he forced a smile, but it was nothing like the easy grin I knew.
“I’m sorry. I know this puts a kink in your plans for us, but it’s only a few years altogether. That’s nothing when you think of all the time we’ll have. Plus, I’ll be home every summer.”
For once it was Christopher who was without words. He took my face in his hands and gave me a kiss – small and gentle like we were ten again.
I looked back as I walked away down the gravel drive. Arms crossed over the top of the gate, he was watching me leave with a look that said he didn’t believe I was ever coming back.
But now here I am, nearly halfway down the aisle. In these last moments, scenes from these past few years that I’ve been away play through my mind like an old silent film – too jumpy and fast to catch what was happening. In the midst of the flood of images, I can still hear Hannah’s sweet voice on the phone.
“It’s Christopher. His dad has gotten worse, Emily. They don’t think he’s going to make it much longer. I think you should come home.”
Christopher and I had talked on the phone the week before, and he had mentioned nothing about his father. True, conversations had become shorter and fewer the longer I’d been away, but I knew we would fix that as soon as I came home to visit. We always did.
I didn’t even pack. The earliest flight to Austin was that evening, so I grabbed my purse and drove to the airport. After three hours in the air and one hour driving north in a rented Hyundai, I began to see the familiar hills that surround Cottonwood. Aside from the signs on every corner advertising the annual Fourth of July picnic, my little town hadn’t changed the least bit since I had last been home at Christmastime.
Christopher was at my parents’ house when I pulled up the familiar gravel drive. In the open kitchen window I could see him sitting with Hannah, his hands buried in his unkempt mess of dark hair. I barely remembered to put the car in park before running through the kitchen door.
“He’s gone,” Christopher whispered as I closed my arms tight around his trembling shoulders. “Why am I crying for him? He’s given us nothing. He’s done nothing. I should be relieved.”
“Chris, I’m so sorry.”
Hannah walked up to us and placed a kind hand on Christopher’s shoulder. His trembling stopped, replaced by some strange calmness. Hannah did always have that effect on people.
The three of us stayed that way for awhile, with Christopher’s face buried in the crook of my neck and Hannah’s hand resting on his back, her eyes closed in unspoken prayer. With every silent sob that shook his body, I grew angrier at myself. His father had been dying, and I hadn’t known. I should have been there.
“I need to get home,” he said, pulling away to dry his eyes on the cuff of his plaid work-shirt. His face held an exhaustion unlike anything I’d seen in him before. “Mom needs help calling the rest of the family. I’ll see you at the visitation?”
“Yes,” my sister and I replied at the same time.
Hannah waited for him to close the door before turning and wrapping her arms around me.
“I’m so glad you came home, Emily. These past few weeks have been so hard, and I just know that seeing you makes it easier for him. Even with the distance, I think you’re still his best friend.”
Something inside my stomach began to churn. Weeks? His father had been sick for weeks, and he never said a word to me about it.
“I’m just glad you’ve been there for him,” I said with the warmest smile I could muster as I pulled away.
“Of course,” she smiled back, “I know he and I aren’t as close as the two of you, but he’s still a good friend to me. I’ve hated seeing him like this.”
“Yeah.” I turned away before she could see my face. “Me too.”
Over the next few days, Christopher and I barely spoke. His extended family from two towns over had invaded their little manufactured home, and members of Cottonwood Baptist poured in and out, bearing flowers and casseroles and an endless chorus of “Bless your hearts.”
I sat in the pew behind him during the funeral. Brother Charles spoke to the near-empty church about how the Lord giveth and taketh away, but the silent grief that poured from that sad, small family in front of me drowned out his words. They had lost a tyrant, but it still left a hole.
That was the last time I had stepped inside the walls of Cottonwood Baptist Church. Until now, that is. Not a thing has changed except the cheap casket and bouquets of white lilies on the altar have been replaced by a nervous groom and a wooden arch covered with silk sunflowers.
I knew we would always find our way to this little church in the sunflowers. That when all was said and done, the promises we made when we were ten would stand against all that growing up would throw against us. I always knew we would make it back to our field.
Right in front of me, close enough to touch, stands that same ten-year-old boy who ran wild with me all summer long. He holds my gaze without wavering. A look passes between us that could tell our entire story to anyone who was looking closely enough.
But no one is watching us. Their faces all turn to where the double doors are opening once more.
I turn and step into line with the other bridesmaids, taking my place as maid of honor. A murmur ripples through the church as Hannah emerges on our dad’s arm. With golden hair pinned close to her cherub-like face, she’s more lovely now than she ever has been. I want to hate her, but as that bright, honest smile spreads across her face, I can’t. Her only crime was picking up that which I had let slip right through my fingers. She saw something worth staying for – something that I had foolishly put on hold.
Outside this very church, I know the fireflies are dancing in and out of those sunflowers. They are waiting for me – for us. If I could, I would follow them as far into those fields as they dare fly. Instead, I stand beside my sister as she steps up to marry the boy who once loved me.