We pray for rain. For three days, we go without food, no water. We spend the nights on the floor of the sanctuary, the dust of the ground layering our knees.
We don’t fast by choice. Circumstances led to this. With the city shut down, grocery stores were looted. We have no power for miles and no running water. The church garden struggles to feed the remnants of our congregation. Pastor John dug up the corn crop last Tuesday. It was brown like smoking tobacco. The tomatoes and cucumbers blossomed then died before becoming eatable vegetables. The soil is arid like sand.
“Do you think this is the end of the world?” Jessie whispers.
“Shhhh!” Mother Jones is in the front pew with the pastor and the elders. We can see the wrinkled, cellulite skin of her thighs underneath he rolled up skirt. She prefers to pray in silence so she can concentrate on what she wants to petition to the Lord, and she’s easily distracted and fumbles over her words when other people are talking. She must hate Sister Teresa right now. She circles the sanctuary, shouting her prayer aloud.
“We ask you to send the rain, God!” she screams, her South Georgian accent coming out strong. “Shower down on us as you did the manna for the children of Israel.”
“Does she have to be so loud, though?” I say.
“She wants to make sure God hears her.”
“The whole continent can hear her.” We both snicker into the cushion of the pew, and again Mother Jones shhhes us.
My stomach rumbles, and I lick my lips thinking about what I could eat. Juicy sweet apples to quench my thirst and my hunger. The crisp pop of them when I sink my teeth into the skin, and the liquid drains down my chin. The sour Granny Smith, the succulent Fiji, the classic Red Delicious.
“I’m so hungry I could eat a cow,” Jessie says.
“Just put me in a pool full of apple juice and ham sandwiches.”
“Eww, then the bread would get soggy!”
We laugh out loud. Mama reaches over and slaps my hand, and we fold our arms and bow our heads and mumble incoherently like the men in the pews behind us and Pastor John standing at the podium. Speaking in tongues, they call it. I wonder if it’s because their tongues roll like an Indian war cry.
At the end of the three days, I can confidently tell Mama I’m starved to death. I feel my ribs through my shirt, and my stomach is flat and sunken in above my belly button. Jessie and I sneak to the bathroom to suck on soft peppermints she had stashed in her fanny pack. We’ve managed to stretch them the whole week. It’s enough to suppress the sting of hunger, at least for now, until we can go outside and see our prayers answered in the form of gray cloud-covered skies, of torrential rain pouring down, of the ground soaked through in puddles.
But when Pastor John opens the double doors to the church, the heat pushes him back, and the sun is blinding after we’ve spent three days in candlelight.
“So does this mean there is no God?” Jessie asks.
“Hush with that blasphemy!” Mother Jones pops her on the behind, and I shield mine with my hands just in case she feels moved to punish me too for talking all through her prayers.
“There is a plan and purpose for everything.” Pastor John says to the stiff, stifled air outside. “But we can only keep praying.” He closes the doors, putting us back into darkness. The melted down candles a poor substitute for the blaring sun.
“What about the children?” Mama says.
Pastor John looks from the side of his eyes at one of the elders. A silent conversation exchanges between them. Then the associate pastor nods, turns around toward the stairwell, snatches off the flashlight hanging on a hook next to the basement door, and stretches out his arm to push in the horizontal door handle but stalls momentarily—the door too heavy for the strength that remains in his arms. He uses his body weight to force the door open, then jogs downstairs, the floor vibrating underneath our feet.
“We’ll ration out the bottled water in the basement,” Pastor John says. “Women and children first. But everyone will still fast food.”
“Do you have any more peppermints?” I whisper to Jessie.
She shakes her head. “That was the last one.”
The mint has melted down to a flat disc on my tongue. No use in spitting it out and saving it for another day. I don’t know if I can survive an extended fast. Already I can’t stand on my own. I curl my fingers inside the waistband of Mama’s skirt and hold myself up. I wish she would hold me. I feel myself regressing the longer I go without eating. First my legs will go out and I’ll have to resort to crawling around. Next I’ll be too weak to speak, and if we ever get food again, it’ll be too late; my muscles will have forgotten how to pick up a fork, how to move my arm back and forth from a plate to my mouth, how to chew and swallow.
“It’d be better if it was the end of the world,” Jessie whispers. “Maybe we’d die quicker.”
Mama takes my hand and leads me back to our pew. We bend down, press our foreheads against clasped hands, and begin praying again. But I know rain won’t be enough, and water won’t hold us. So Jessie and I agree it’ll be easier just to pray for death.
It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a Cinderella story, but isn’t there enough “Cinderella stories” on ABC Family (or Freeform)? But I do like the story arc of trying to find happiness, and failing, so here’s a story about trying and failing, and then finally accepting the reality of one’s situation.